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The Bureau of Land Management plans to capture 783 wild horses and to permanently remove 733 from Colorado’s Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area in a helicopter roundup set to run Sept. 1-27.
BLM says that it recognized the need to remove “excess” wild horses prior to current drought conditions but that the roundup is now prioritized as an “emergency” due to a lack of resources on the Herd Management Area.
“Recent rains have alleviated the scarcity of water, but the available forage outlook during winter months is dire. To date, horse body conditions are starting to decline — ranging 4-5. Most remaining forage is at the higher elevations,” said Stephen Leonard, BLM wild horse specialist, in an e-mail.
Body condition scores of 4-5 are considered moderately thin to moderate on a 9-point scale.
Return to Freedom urges the BLM to consider reducing the number of wild horses that it plans to remove from their home range and increase trained personnel to increase effectiveness with the fertility control program. Further, RTF urges BLM to consider relocating those that are removed in their natural family and bachelor bands to the same location instead of disturbing the social bonds and structure and scattering the herd.
Plans call for 25 mares of the mares rounded up to be treated with fertility control and for them to be released with a similar number of studs. RTF strongly supports the use of safe, proven and humane fertility control to slow reproduction and halt future roundups.
Population estimates are not complete, according to BLM, but advocate counts and a preliminary census place the population at about 896 wild horses.
The BLM-set “Appropriate Management Level” for the 157,730-acre Herd Management Area is 163-363, or as low as one horse for every 968 acres.
By comparison, BLM allows up to 19,758 Animal Unit Months of private cattle and sheep grazing on four allotments overlapping the Herd Management Area, or the equivalent of 1,647 cow-calf pairs annually. (One AUM equals monthly forage for one cow-calf pair, one horse or five sheep.) While wild horses are free-roaming all year long, seasons of use for livestock vary by allotment, with cattle use ranging from as low as two to as many as three months and sheep use ranging from as low as six to as many as eight months.
Actual livestock use on three of the allotments averaged 14-52% of maximum livestock use from 2008-20, according to planning documents. On the fourth allotment, there has been no livestock use since before 2000 due to wild horse use and limited acreage and lack of AUMs for cattle, according to planning documents.
No cattle were grazed on the Herd Management Area in 2020-21, according to BLM, while 2,161 AUMs were allocated for sheep in 2020. Use varied by allotment with sheep allowed to graze as early as September and as late as May, according to planning documents.
In 2021, the trailing of sheep through the Herd Management Area has been the only livestock use. An active grazing period was not used, Leonard said, and an exact number of days has not yet been calculated.
Last year, 300 mares on the Herd Management Area were treated with fertility control, in cooperation with advocates. Advocates will also provide input into which captured horses are released, Leonard said. He said he will not have a number for foals to darted mares until the roundup is complete.
Local advocates have raised concerns about the horses and young foals being run over rough terrain. Leonard responded that there are “a limited number of mares that had foals outside of the foaling season.”
“The contractor will be made aware of them,” he said. “We will discuss if and how far each pair is to be moved dependent on terrain, weather and size of each foal.”
The roundup is part of a plan to remove 6,000 additional wild horses from the range because of drought conditions by the end of September.
Return to Freedom believes that we are in this tragic position because of the BLM’s failure to implement solutions that have been available for over 20 years For nearly 50 years, these horses have had to suffer this management program and the Americans who love them suffer with them.
This is even more tragic because other solutions exist now. The agency has resisted creating an infrastructure and a culture that could have made a sustainable and effective fertility control program possible. It has rounded up horses year after year while waiting for longer-acting vaccines instead of using the safe, proven and humane fertility control that’s available right now. These sensitive habitats are vulnerable to drought and, knowing this, a national land management agency tasked with the preservation and protection of our wild horses should have been prepared long ago and in a much better position today.