West Douglas wild horse capture brings renewed scrutiny to BLM management program
The distant beat of the Rolls-Royce turbine engine on the MD 500E helicopter gave way to the sight of the aircraft emerging over a distant hill in the West Douglas rangeland in Northwest Colorado just before 10 a.m. Sept. 1.
Hovering high for a moment, it dove back out of sight and disappeared behind the ridgeline.
“That is our tax dollars at work,” yelled an observer standing in a designated viewing area as the aircraft came into sight.
Less than a half hour later, the aircraft returned, this time buzzing low into the valley, kicking up dust and volleying back and forth like a lawnmower as the pilot forced a band of wild horses, burros and foals toward a fenced trap waiting behind a cliff face. Nearby, contractors with the Utah-based C D Warner Livestock, hired by the Bureau of Land Management to perform the work at a cost of $187,500, unleashed “the Judas horse.”
The trained, domesticated horse joined the band of fleeing wild horses with a mission to lead them into the trap before the contractors ran to close the gate. From there, the animals were carried away in trucks and taken to a BLM facility in Cañon City.
The scene repeated itself throughout the day as the operation netted 13 stallions, seven mares and six foals. By Thursday, the total collection of wild horses had reached 116 — six short of the federal agency’s goal to capture 122 animals in its West Douglas horse-gathering operation. Four horses were euthanized due to “pre-existing” or “chronic” conditions, according to the agency, including one found to have a broken leg.
In a statement announcing the West Douglas operation last week, the agency explained that “the purpose of the gather is to protect the health of wild horses in the area due to limited water and food sources” and “to protect the rangeland from overuse due to excess wild horses” and “restore a thriving natural ecological balance” to the public lands managed by the BLM by bringing the area’s horse population to “zero.”
But advocates say the federal government’s strategy of rounding up wild horses in Colorado and other Western states results in opposite outcomes to the BLM’s stated goals — and does so at a growing cost to taxpayers.
According to USASpending.gov, the BLM has spent roughly $1.4 million on helicopter roundup contracts in Colorado over the last three years — a fraction of the taxpayer dollars spent by the agency on its wild horse and burro management program.
In 2022, BLM horse roundups on public lands in the West netted 21,971 horses. Most of the agency’s $137.1 million allocation for the program was spent on operating and paying contractors to run long-term holding facilities to house more than 64,000 captured horses.
According to BLM estimates, the lifetime cost to care for a single wild horse or burro in a long-term holding facility is up to $48,000.
“It’s a very mismanaged program,” said Grace Kuhn with the American Wild Horse Campaign, a California-based nonprofit whose mission centers on reforming the BLM’s wild horse capture program.
In an interview this week, Kuhn and Amelia Perrin, the nonprofit’s investigations program manager, explained the environmental impact of removing wild horses and pointed to flaws in the BLM’s system designed to deal with the animals after their capture.
The report, commissioned by BLM for a cost of $1 million, could not identify the scientific rationale used by the federal agency for its wild horse and burro population estimates and asserted that, “the continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ practices will be expensive and unproductive for BLM.”
“In the short term, intensive management of free ranging horses would be expensive, but addressing the problem immediately with a long-term view is probably a more affordable and satisfactory answer than continuing to remove animals to a long-term holding facility,” the report found.
Kuhn also pointed to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services program whereby ranchers grazing their animals on public land, and paying $1.30 for each cow/calf pair, may request the government to kill an apex predator deemed to be threatening their herd.
“The BLM is complaining about overpopulation of horses on public lands but then they are limiting apex predators,” she added.
Additionally, through a biological phenomenon called “compensatory reproduction,” Kuhn explained that the removal of wild horses and burros from a herd results in higher reproductive rates as the remaining animals have access to more resources.
“Essentially, the BLM is creating the very problem it is complaining about,” she said.
Perhaps most alarming for advocates when it comes to the BLM’s management of wild horse and burro populations is the agency’s Adoption Incentive Program.
When wild horses are captured, they are sent to auctions where individuals may purchase up to four animals for $25. Those that are not sold are then transported to long-term holding facilities operated by the BLM or private contractors.
Established in 2019 in response to the increasing cost of holding the animals in long-term facilities, the BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program provides a $1,000 cash incentive to individuals to adopt up to four unhandled and untrained wild horses and burros each year.
Led by Perrin, an ongoing investigation by the American Wild Horse Campaign has found the adoption program is “routinely being defrauded by individuals with ill intent,” according to a summary of the report.
“Records show that after receiving title to their animals, many adopters are pocketing the cash incentives, then promptly sending their wild horses and burros to livestock auctions (known as kill pens), placing hundreds, if not thousands of these animals in direct threat of slaughter,” the report states.
The commercial slaughter of horses is illegal in the United States, but the practice is legal in Canada and Mexico, Perrin explained, “and according to the BLM, you are free to do whatever you want with the horses” after holding them for one year — a policy that can result in animals winding up in kill pens before being sold and exported to slaughter and rendering facilities in Canada and Mexico.
Since 2020, Perrin said the American Wild Horse Campaign’s investigation has identified 1,725 BLM-branded horses and burros kept in kill pens, of which 77% were confirmed to have been adopted through the BLM incentive program, but a murky paper trail makes identifying the horses difficult.
“The true number of wild horses and burros entering the slaughter pipeline as a direct result of the (Adoption Incentive Program) is likely much larger than what the investigation has uncovered to date,” according to the report.
While the BLM has a legally mandated responsibility to ensure humane outcomes for the wild horses, Perrin said the agency has largely ignored the issue.
“They have a history, they have a pattern and they are just ignoring it until (the adoption program) gets shut down as a way to get as many horses out of long-term holding pens as possible,” she said.
The agency has denied that its wild horse management practices result in animals being sent to slaughter, calling “the charge absolutely false,” according to a statement on the agency’s website.
The American Wild Horse Campaign has filed a lawsuit against the BLM over the Adoption Incentive Program, but Perrin said the goal of the lawsuit is “not to stop the adoption program.”
Instead, the nonprofit group has proposed the incentive system be changed so that those who adopt a wild horse or burro are eligible for up to $1,000 in veterinary service reimbursements.
And instead of removing the animals from their natural habitat, the advocacy group believes fertility-control programs should be expanded.
In Nevada, the advocacy group pointed to a successful fertility-control program that ultimately saw a 20% population reduction of wild horses and burros in two years without a single animal being removed.
“The fact that people are advocating for removals without advocating for fertility control is totally misguided,” Kuhn said.
“If you don’t care about horses, you should still care about this program because your tax dollars are lining the pockets of these (contractors and kill pens) that are scamming the taxpayers,” she added.
A BLM spokesperson could not immediately provide the total amount of funding spent by the agency on fertility-control programs but pointed to funding awards recently provided to several volunteer organizations in Colorado and across the West.
“I also wanted to add, we have been successful so far in vaccinating West Douglas horses as they are shipped to the (BLM) Cañon City facility and look forward to finding good homes for them in local adoption events in the future,” the spokesperson added.
Trevor Ballantyne is the city government and housing reporter. To reach him, call 970-871-4254 or email him at tballantyne@SteamboatPilot.com.
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