A camouflaged helicopter rises above the horizon.
The pattern does little to conceal the aircraft as the rotors blow high elevation desert sand into thick clouds of dust. The thumping can be heard for miles.
Several hundred yards ahead, a band of a half-dozen wild horses emerges over the horizon too, running from the helicopter. The airborne wrangler sways in the air, pushing horses south along a trail off Rio Blanco County Road 70.
The trail, typically used by off-road vehicles, leads to a trap with two long wings of burlap-like material called jute on either side. As the jute narrows, the helicopter slows and lowers ushering the horses toward a series of corrals.
The elaborate equipment was set up to remove wild horses from Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area west of Meeker and south of Rangely. The horses are descendants of herds used by Ute tribes that named the area Piceance — “Land of tall grass.”
The Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency in charge of managing these wild horses, contends the 190,000-acre area can accommodate between 135 and 235 horses. A population estimate from this spring — before a new crop of foals was born — guessed there were about 1,385 horses there.
The 750 horses being removed from the area is more than any other roundup in Colorado history. It could be the last in the state from the air.
As the band of horses gets closer to capture, a large black stallion in the rear of the group stops running.
Instead of being coaxed into captivity, the stallion turns and charges toward the helicopter, the rest of his band following suit. What moments before was a neat line of horses seemingly ensnared is now a scattered mess on the landscape. The pilot retreats in an attempt to regroup the horses, but it is too late for this run.
Some gallop back over the horizon to the west while others run into a lower section with thick trees and sagebrush. The chopper blades grow louder as the machine gains altitude and flies off to find more mustangs. After several more runs, including another where the horses got away at the last second, the chopper lands near the trap.
At 3 p.m., it’s about 90 degrees. Eric Coulter, a public affairs specialist for the BLM, radios the private livestock contractor at the trap site to see what’s happening.
“They called it,” Coulter says to a handful of observers watching the roundup from a viewing area set up by the BLM about a mile from the trap.
The operation ends with 41 wild horses rounded up on July 19.
This roundup is the third time helicopters have been used to wrangle wild horses in Colorado in the last year. When the BLM removed more than 450 horses from the West Douglas Herd Area last summer, it became the largest in state history. Last September, the 632 horses removed from the Sand Wash Basin replaced it in the record book.
In Piceance, the BLM hopes to gather 1,050 total horses and treat 300 of them with a form of birth control before releasing them back on the range. The other 750 horses will be shipped to a holding facility in Utah.
As of Tuesday, July 26, BLM had gathered 733 wild horses in Piceance. Three have died, each for a preexisting condition, according to the agency.
Before these roundups, Colorado hadn’t seen a large-scale helicopter operation in years. The previous high had been 276 horses removed from Piceance more than a decade ago.
Bill Mills, the field manager for the BLM’s White River Field Office who decided to gather these horses and move the operation up to July, said he hopes this is the last one.
“Our goal for this (herd management area) is to not ever have a helicopter back in it,” Mills said. “Once we get to the appropriate management level, we don’t want a helicopter, and we don’t want to ever send a horse to holding.”
During last year’s Sand Wash Basin roundup, BLM Colorado’s Wild Horse and Burro specialist Steve Leonard said the same.
“Absolutely, my goal is to not have another large gather (in Sand Wash),” Leonard told Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Colorado’s other two herd management areas — Spring Creek near Grand Junction and Little Book Cliffs in Southwest Colorado — are both at, or close to, BLM’s desired management levels. Sand Wash Basin is now, too.
It remains to be seen whether these goals will be realized. If they are, the Piceance-East Douglas gather could end as both the largest and last helicopter roundup in state history.
“We share the common vision that large scale gathers are not the optimal management scenario,” wrote BLM Acting State Director Stephanie Connolly in a July 15 letter to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. “When we stay close to the appropriate management level and have successful partnership and contraception program, wild horses are gathered typically from small bait and trap methods and find homes via successful adoptions.”
This Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area roundup is one of three underway across the West.
In California, the BLM is looking to remove nearly 1,900 wild horses from the wild. In Nevada, the goal is removing 1,800. Other roundups have already been completed with more planned later this year.
In all, the agency hopes to round up more than 20,500 wild horses and burros in 2022 — about a quarter of all the wild horses in the United States, based on a BLM estimate from March 1.
The roughly 82,000 wild horses and burros is more than three times what BLM officials have determined is the West’s appropriate management level. The agency is now in the second year of a plan that aims to get horse populations under control.
“If nothing were done to reduce the annual growth rate of these herds, by 2040, the BLM estimates the on-range populations of wild horses and burros would increase to over 2.8 million,” reads a 2020 report to Congress outlining the agency’s plan to “achieve a sustainable wild horse and burro program.”
BLM officials say this accelerated plan to remove “excess” horses over an 18-year period is needed to fulfill the duty assigned to them in the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 — the law that protects wild horses and declared them living symbols of “the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
The gather in Piceance is necessary to “preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationships in that area,” Mills said in a statement announcing the gather.
Other uses the BLM is considering include recreation, oil and gas development, and wildlife and livestock grazing, among others. To achieve the goal of healthy horses on healthy lands, the BLM insists the area needs fewer horses.
Wild horse advocates disagree, contending these large-scale helicopter roundups are inhumane and livestock permits are being favored over horses. They believe the horses are better left on the range and away from a federal holding system that contained more than 58,000 formerly wild horses and burros as of June.
“The horses we are seeing captured here are clearly healthy in the wild, but they are dying in captivity in BLM’s custody,” said Scott Wilson, a spokesperson for the American Wild Horse Campaign, referencing horses that died in the BLM’s care this spring.
“This inhumane system needs to change,” he continued. “Congress must hold the BLM accountable for this waste of tax dollars and brutal treatment of these iconic animals.”
Land of tall grass
Shadows shrink as the mid-July sun rises above the high-elevation desert terrain of the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area.
The area is pinyon-juniper woodland — a biome common across the Western United States dominated by small, bushy evergreen junipers, pinyon pines and sagebrush.
Drought conditions have hit the area hard in recent years, but this year the land looks better. Still, BLM officials say it doesn’t meet their goal of a healthy landscape.
The first trap location of the day is off of Rio Blanco County Road 24 in an area called 84 Mesa. White sticks marking oil and gas pipelines are nearly as common as sagebrush in some areas, and brown pipes routinely jut out of the landscape.
The helicopter buzzes around Piceance for about an hour as a small group of observers — two journalists, a photographer, a wild horse advocate and another member of the public — and BLM officials wait for the first group of horses to be brought in.
The viewing area is about 500 yards from the trap. A horse trailer sits between observers and the backend of the trap, blocking much of the view. Advocate Ginger Fedak, Wild Horse and Burro Campaign director for In Defense of Animals, doesn’t think it is a coincidence.
“I keep asking them to move that trailer and they wont,” Fedak remarks. “It’s not ideal by any means.”
Observers are told to keep low and blend in with the brush when the helicopter nears. But it never does. After about an hour, the BLM’s contractor, Utah-based Cattoor Livestock Roundup Co., decided it was time to move the trap, which can take hours. BLM officials say they are unsure if the helicopter will take off again on Tuesday.
“There is a good chance we might fly, but what is the temperature like?” Chris Maestas, a public affairs specialist for the BLM based in Craig, asks rhetorically. “We’ve decided here that at 95 degrees, we’re going to stop.”
The gather was initially planned for September, but was moved up.
The accelerated timeline came just days after Gov. Polis asked the BLM to call off the roundup amid 145 horse deaths at the agency’s Cañon City holding facility.
The timing has drawn the ire of advocates who say moving up the roundup was a way to avoid increased scrutiny from a state politician who has been vocal about the BLM’s management of horses for years. A state veterinarian was on site at the gather at Polis’ urging.
Mills, who decided to accelerate the timeline, said the two are unrelated and the timing was “bad luck.”
“Our discussions really drove towards where’s our window of when the horses are going to have the most food in their belly,” Mills said. “We wanted to get them while they had food, so that it wasn’t harder on them.”
Mills said he also considered the foaling season when moving up the gather. The agency’s environmental analysis identified peak foaling season to be from March to the end of June. The helicopter aspect of the roundup started on July 15.
“We wont gather during peak foaling season,” Mills said. “The reality of this (herd management area) is that foaling happens year-round. As long as we avoid our peak, we’re still going to have some young ones, but we won’t have a lot.”
The BLM estimates there are 1,385 horses in the area, and that doesn’t include foals born this spring. Of the 733 horses gathered so far, 136 of them, or 19%, have been foals.
On Monday, July 25, In Defense of Animals released a statement criticizing the accelerated timeline, adding that running from a helicopter in the summer heat is particularly hard on young horses.
“Chasing terrified horses with helicopters over miles of rough ground is cruel and dangerous in any weather,” Fedak said. “Temperatures in the 90s make it even more so, especially for young foals and pregnant mares.”
The second trap
Around noon, with the new trap set up, BLM officials lead the way up a rough stretch of road to a hill near County Road 70.
The jute is set up along an off-road trail, just behind a developed oil and gas site. The observation site is more than a mile away this time, but allows onlookers to see the horses as they run in.
Eric Coulter, a public affairs specialist out of BLM’s Upper Colorado River Field Office, says while farther away, this trap site allows a more complete view of operations. Observers couldn’t see horses running toward the trap in the previous location.
The whirring of the helicopter rises and falls as it flies around looking for horses. When the sound grows louder, the pilot has a group of mustangs headed for the trap.
When the gather is complete, about 300 horses will be given two doses of the fertility treatment GonaCon spaced 30 days apart. This method of fertility control has the potential to last years. Another contraceptive treatment, porcine zona pellucida, PZP, only lasts one year.
When the contractor captures a few groups of horses, hands sort them by gender, separating the foals from the rest of the group, including their mares. BLM policy requires foals be separated when they’re transported for their safety, Coulter says.
The contractor slowly drives the horses back down C.R. 70 before heading to a temporary holding corral on private land, away from public view.
Coulter explains the decision to temporarily hold horses on private land was made by the contractor, not the BLM. The location of these corrals was not shared with observers.
“We’ve been trying to work with the private landowners to see if we can do it one day, take people down there,” Coulter says. “I know the private land that it is on; they have a big water source, everything like that. These are contracts and people do this for profit.”
As of Tuesday, 582 horses from Piceance had been shipped out of Colorado to a holding facility the BLM contracts with in Axtell, Utah.
The facility is being used because the BLM’s facility in Cañon City is still under quarantine after 145 horses died this spring of equine flu. Colorado’s facility is also nearing its 2,600-horse capacity and the trek to Utah is actually a shorter drive.
The horses that died were from the West Douglas Herd Area immediately west of Piceance. A BLM Incident Review Team Report of the outbreak found many horses had not received vaccinations despite being at the facility for eight months.
The review says officials opted to delay vaccinations and branding for these horses in order to prepare for more horses arriving at the facility from the Sand Wash Basin and another roundup in Wyoming.
“While the delay is not, in and of itself, a violation of BLM policy, it is an unusually long time for newly arrived horses to remain unvaccinated,” the review says.
The agency started to vaccinated these horses on April 13, just 10 days before the first horse died. The report says 146 horses received their first dose of the vaccine, but the effort was halted as more horses died. Of the 145 dead horses, 47 were partially vaccinated and 98 were unvaccinated.
Still, the review does not say the outbreak was caused by the lack of vaccination, staffing issues or other challenges at the Cañon City facility.
“It is not clear that any of these challenges by themselves or together caused or worsened the high-mortality event,” the review said.
The review says the BLM needs to better plan for gathers to ensure holding facilities can accommodate rounded up mustangs, among other improvements. Steven Hall, communications director for BLM Colorado, said last month that vaccination with these horses would be a priority.
“I think one of the takeaways from what happened in Cañon City is that we need to be sure that we’re getting horses vaccinated in a more timely fashion,” he said.
After the gather and processing, many of these horses will go into the BLM’s adoption system, which hopes to find good homes for horses to live out the rest of their lives.
In 2021, nearly 7,400 wild horses and burros were adopted and another almost 1,300 were sold into private care. Adoptions are higher than ever, largely fueled by the BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program, which pays adopters $1,000 after a year and was created to lessen the strain on bloated government corrals.
But a New York Times report in May 2021 detailed how some horses adopted through the program have ended up at slaughter auctions. That article was supported by investigative work done by the American Wild Horse Campaign, a leading wild horse protection organization.
The group released more investigative findings on Tuesday, that they say shows the incentive program has become a “pipeline to slaughter.”
AWHC said as many as 840 BLM-branded horses have been identified in advertisements at “kill pens,” with 428 of those being identified by BLM brand or microchip to have been adopted through the adoption incentive program, according to the group’s 19-month investigation dating back to November 2020.
“The findings of our report are irrefutable,” said Amelia Perrin, investigations manager for AWHC. “The BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program has resulted in a flood of wild, untrained mustangs and burros into kill pens selling hundreds — perhaps thousands — of these cherished animals into the slaughter pipeline.”
In the 26-page report, AWHC said it monitored advertisements on Facebook from so-called “kill pens” to identify and track BLM horses, which all receive a similar looking brand on their neck. This information was uploaded to a database where partners could attempt to rescue the horse and obtain its ownership title, which generally includes details of its previous owners.
The campaign also used Freedom of Information Act requests to the BLM to obtain records of horses adopted through the adoption incentive program and compared those with the Facebook ads.
“The BLM is reviewing the report by American Wild Horse Campaign,” the BLM national office said in a statement, provided by Press Secretary Brian Hires in response to questions from Pilot & Today.
“We remain committed to the health and safety of adopted wild horses and burros and have taken steps in recent months to ensure adopters adhere to our requirements to provide a good and caring home,” the statement continues.
The BLM did not address a question asking whether any formerly wild horses have ended up in slaughter.
Adopters can only get four horses in any 12-month period, and are required to wait a year before the horse’s title can be transferred. The reports says the investigation started after receiving reports of increased numbers of BLM horses in kill pens in March 2020, about 12 months after the adoption incentive program started.
Steps taken by the BLM to protect adopted horses include additional compliance visits and increased warnings at sale barns about risks of illegally selling wild horses. Adopters must also certify they “will not knowingly sell or transfer ownership of an adopted animal to any person or organization that intends to resell, trade or give away the animals for slaughter.”
In July 2021, an advisory board to BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program recommended on an 8-1 vote that BLM should pursue “alternative, non-cash incentives to ensure a high standard of welfare for adopted horses.”
“We’re calling for BLM to immediately eliminate cash incentives and make additional adoption program reforms,” Perrin said.
‘Save a horse, hire a cowboy’
Calls to change how wild horses and burros are managed have grown louder from elected officials.
In June, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Boulder whose new district includes Steamboat Springs, called on the Piceance gather to be delayed and reevaluated. He has also introduced legislation that would forbid the BLM from using aircraft to gather horses.
U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat from Las Vegas, whose state has the most wild horses, has proposed overhauling the 1971 law that protects horses. In February, she introduced the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 2022. This too would eliminate helicopter roundups from the BLM’s tool box, instead proposing the BLM employ cowboys on horseback to corral horses.
“Mr. Speaker, put simply, save a horse, hire a cowboy,” Titus said on the House floor when introducing the bill.
But neither effort has advanced in committee, and helicopter roundups remain a pivotal aspect of the BLM’s 18-year plan to get horse populations in the West under control outlined in the 2020 report.
The BLM estimates the cost of the first five years of this plan for the entire Wild Horse and Burro Program — roundups, fertility treatments, adoption programs and caring for unadopted horses — will be about $900 million. Costs will continue to increase until the desired management levels are reached, the report says.
In March, Congress allocated more money to the BLM to manage horses for the third year in a row, including $11 million meant specifically for fertility control.
In 2021, more horses were treated with fertility control than ever before, though the 13,666 horses and burros removed last year dwarf the 1,160 treatments given. This year, the agency hopes to treat 2,299 horses with some form of birth control as it rounds up more than 20,000.
Reversible fertility control is seen by advocates as the best way to manage wild horse populations. It is an ideal method for the BLM as well, but it isn’t a tactic that can reduce populations, the report says.
“We want to manage through herd fertility control and direct adoptions,” Mills said. “That’s our future.”
A new model for Piceance
Whether the Piceance-East Douglas gather will be Colorado’s last helicopter roundup is still up in the air.
Steven Hall, communications director for BLM Colorado, said contraception is more viable with strong local partnerships like the agency has in Colorado’s other herd management areas. Still, another helicopter round up is not out of the question.
“We hope to see similar results in Piceance and Sand Wash when numbers are lower and more manageable,” Hall said. “Helicopter gathers are a safe, effective means of managing wild horse populations with serious injuries and fatalities roughly comparable to bait-trap operations.”
Mills said he hopes to avoid another helicopter roundup in Piceance. He said the main two management tools for the area are fertility control and direct adoptions. The former hopes to get a head start after this roundup when the BLM releases 300 horses that have been given fertility treatments.
Volunteers from the local group Piceance Mustangs help the BLM with some of these treatments and other monitoring of the horses.
Mills said they are training BLM firefighters to dart horses with fertility treatments as well. Of the 150 horses darted in Piceance last year, 75% were darted by volunteers and the rest by BLM firefighters, Mills said.
Next spring, Mills said officials will do another population scan in Piceance to get a good handle of how many horses are left, and an indication of how successful contraceptive efforts have been.
Mills’ vision for direct adoptions also differs from how things are carried out now.
In an ideal situation, horses wouldn’t leave Northwest Colorado until they are adopted, Mills said. Instead of large gathers, Mills said they would employ smaller, generally less controversial, bait-and-trap gathers, taking a few dozen horses at a time.
The Piceance gather started with a bait-and-trap method, which only yielded 18 horses. But once the herd is within the areas management levels, Mills said, frequent gathers like this, and maybe even a permanent bait-and-trap location in the basin could more effectively manage the horses.
“We would gather horses, we’d bring in our own vet, do what we have to do with the horses, treat them, make sure they are healthy — there’s a lot of vaccinations and such — and then we go to a direct adoption like the Meeker Mustang Makeover,” Mills said.
“We say, were going to go out and catch 20 for you, and instead of sending them to a holding facility, we can treat them locally if we have the capacity,” Mills continued. “Just go direct with our horses, from our herd to our adoption events.”
Still, that ideal scenario is dependent on funding. The funds for these roundups come from the state office, not out of the field office’s budget. For a direct adoption system to work, the field office would need to have the funding and the staffing to do it, Mills said.
“The future is still a ways off for us,” Mills said. “We’ve had that discussion a lot in the last six months about what would be the best way to manage (the Piceance herd) and it would be not having helicopters and being able to control the population with direct adoptions.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email [email protected]