BLM starts operations to round up 1,250 more of Colorado’s wild horses
The Piceance-East Douglas gather is expected to surpass the last year's round up in Sand Wash Basin as largest in state history
The Bureau of Land Management started gathering wild horses in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on Thursday, June 16, kicking off a monthslong effort that aims to remove as many as 1,250 horses — the most ever for a gather in Colorado.
The federal agency congressionally designated to manage wild horses estimates that there are about 1,385 horses in and around the herd management area in western Rio Blanco County.
The BLM-determined Appropriate Management Level for the area is between 135 and 235 horses, a range that increased 20 years ago when it was last updated. The gather hopes to reduce the population to that lower limit.
“You don’t build a church for Easter Sunday,” said Elijah Waters, the BLM’s district manager for Northwest Colorado, at a virtual forum on wild horse management on Wednesday, June 15. “We don’t set the AML range for the bountiful years, we set it for the bad years and right now we’re in a drought. Last year was particularly bad.”
If 1,250 horses are rounded up from the area just outside of Rangely as planned, this gather will remove almost double the number of horses that were taken out of the Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County last September. The 632 horses removed there is currently the largest wild horse roundup in Colorado history.
As with last year’s gather operations in Sand Wash, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has called for this latest roundup to stop. In a letter sent to the BLM last month, Polis pushed the BLM to reevaluate their plan for the Piceance-East Douglas gather amid the death of 145 horses due to illness in a BLM facility in Cañon City this spring.
“The facilities and procedures are ill-equipped to take on hundreds of additional horses scheduled to be removed from the range,” wrote Polis, who’s husband Marlon Reis has been a vocal supporter of wild horses.
“The planned roundups should be delayed and reconsidered for replacement by a more cost effective and humane management alternative and the state of Colorado is eager and willing to assist BLM in development and implementing such a plan,” Polis continued.
While Polis’ input failed to stop the Sand Wash Basin gather last year, it did lead to more horses being left on the range than originally planned. Steven Hall, communications director for BLM Colorado, said state input has influenced decisions the BLM has made for this gather, though the timeline is actually being accelerated.
“One of the things we’ve definitely heard from the Governor’s Office (is) trying to find a less controversial means of managing horse populations, which would be the bait traps” Hall said. “We’ve used bait traps in the past, but using bait traps and the helicopter gather is a little new, and that’s based on — at least we’ve had that input from the state of Colorado.”
The Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area is one of three areas with horses just to the southeast of Rangely in Piceance Basin, but the only one designated to actually have horses.
The West Douglas and North Piceance Herd Areas have horses, but have been deemed unsuitable to sustain them. That’s why the agency attempted to zero out West Douglas last year when it removed 457 horses.
The area designated for horses is about 190,000 acres of largely BLM land, though there is some state and private land included as well. The White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts have studied the area since 2016.
This study included documenting the range as well as using video cameras to see what animals are eating the forage that is there. Callie Hendrickson, executive director for the districts, said that research revealed that of the forage consumed between April and November of last year, wild horses ate 80% of it. Wildlife like elk ate 6% and cattle another 14%.
The BLM says several hundred horses have left the boundary of the HMA in search for better forage on private land and ranchers have voluntarily reduced the number of cattle grazing in the HMA by about 60%.
Hendrickson said the maximum allotted number of horses and cattle in the HMA would consume about 10,000 animal unit month of forage in a year — with about 65% going to cattle. An animal unit month is the amount of forage a cow-calf pair, or a horse, would eat in a month.
“In 2021, there were 17,000 AUM consumed,” Hendrickson said. “I was out there in April and it was ugly — really ugly, which was predicted through our monitoring.”
While originally set for September, Waters said gather operations have been moved up due to “the poor condition of the horses coming out of the winter.”
“We felt like getting excess horses off the range sooner, rather than later, would be the best thing for the horses remaining in the HMA,” Waters said. “This will allow the range to recover, and the remaining horses could go into the fall with their best chance of having more forage for winter.”
Operations started Thursday by using what the agency refers to as a “bait and trap” method. This sets a bait of water and hay in an open corral that BLM agents control remotely to close when a group of horses enters.
This is a method that wild horse advocates generally prefer, but the BLM says it is much less efficient than driving horses from the air. Hall said previous gathers with this method have typically only trapped a few dozen horses.
The plan for the gather is to trap as many horses with this method as possible for the next month, before helicopters take over operations on July 15. Waters said the goal is to remove malnourished horses through bait and trap first in an attempt to ensure that horses gathered from the air will be healthier and could better deal with the stress.
Horse advocates are generally not fans of using helicopters to gather horses, contending that it is inhumane. Two horses were euthanized during the Sand Wash Basin gather but the BLM contends those horses had preexisting injuries that were not gather-related. Some advocates say the agency’s explanation for at least one of these deaths didn’t make sense.
Still, BLM Colorado Deputy Director Alan Bittner pointed to last year’s Sand Wash Basin round up as a reason why this method is used.
“We had very minor injuries and no deaths,” Bittner said. “Recent (roundups) across the nation are not showing significant deaths and significant injuries from helicopter operations.”
The horses gathered from the Piceance-East Douglas area will not be sent to the BLM’s Cañon City holding facility, as it is still under quarantine following the death of 145 horses this spring, largely from equine flu.
The deaths have been limited to horses from the West Douglas Herd Area rounded up last year, though horses from other herds likely did get sick, Hall said.
“We’re not sure if there’s something distinct about the West Douglas horses that made them more susceptible, but we should know,” Hall said, adding that multiple universities are studying this question.
A probe of the outbreak released on May 24 found that while the facility was meeting 83% of the standards outlined in the BLM’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program, there were 13 instances of non-compliance.
The report found several examples of poor maintenance at the facility that could lead to horse injury, a level of staffing that was inadequate to properly complete tasks, and inconsistent adherence to procedures for vaccination and care of horses when they arrive.
“Among animals received from gather operations as well as those that had been at the facility for some time, current and timely vaccinations had not been maintained in several instances,” the report says.
On June 9, the BLM reported another horse death. New cases of respiratory illness are still popping up among horses in Cañon City, some that appear to be the same flu previously seen and others caused by streptococcus bacteria, generally referred to as “strangles.”
The facility is also near capacity, with Bittner estimating there being about 2,600 horses on site.
The Piceance-East Douglas horses will instead be sent to a BLM contracted holding facility in Utah that Hall said is actually a shorter trip for gathered horses instead of Cañon City. Hall said these facilities are seen as regional and moving horses across state lines isn’t unusual.
While the BLM contends a lack of vaccination isn’t the proven cause of the outbreak, there will be a stronger push follow procedures for intake of these horses.
“I think one of the takeaways from what happened at Cañon City is that we need to be sure that we’re getting horses vaccinated in a more timely fashion,” Hall said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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