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761 wild horses removed from Colorado's Piceance East Douglas herd area, here's how and why it was done

761 wild horses removed from Colorado's Piceance East Douglas herd area, here's how and why it was d
761 wild horses removed from Colorado's Piceance East Douglas herd area, here's how and why it was d 03:53

A controversial wild horse gather - commonly called a roundup - came to an end this week on Colorado's western slope. The Bureau of Land Management says it removed 761 mustangs from the Piceance East Douglas Herd Management Area, near Meeker, Colo., at a cost to taxpayers of $559,000. 

This gather was one of two dozen helicopter roundups planned this year across the country. By the end of the year, the BLM will have removed more than 20,000 mustangs from the wild nationwide in one year alone. 

At the heart of the debate over the roundup lies one major question: Should taxpayers foot the bill for these roundups so ranchers can graze their livestock on the same land for a cheaper price? 

CBS4 Investigates traveled to Meeker to examine that issue while documenting this latest roundup up close. 

How it's done

The gather in the Piceance Basin had two phases: a bait trap phase and a drive-trap phase using a helicopter. Both stages lasted about two weeks each. 

The BLM says it used the bait trap method - in which horses are drawn to traps using food and water - as a response to calls for it from several groups advocating for the horses. That phase gathered about 18 horses, the BLM says. 

During the drive-trap phase, a helicopter scares the horses into a running group, directing them toward a trap. At the trap's opening, a trained horse - often called a 'Judas horse' - leads the herd through the gates, sealing off their final fate to be removed from the range. 

A group of mustangs run from a BLM-contracted helicopter during the 2022 gather in the Piceance Basin John Mason, CBS Colorado

Ginger Kathrens, a board member for The Cloud Foundation, has been documenting roundups across the American west since the 1990s. She attended the viewing for the Piceance East Douglas gather all the same. 

"It's a hideous event," she said. "There's no sugarcoating what happens. Horses value more than anything, their freedom and their families. And those are destroyed when they're rounded up."

She believes the BLM should give wild horses more space to roam and use birth control methods to keep herd sizes manageable. 

"I think that the horses need to be given their four seasonal needs landscape. Way back when they were allotted a lot of acreage and then that shrunk, shrunk, shrunk and sometimes that cut them out of adequate forage, and adequate water, and so I think within Colorado with our very few herds, we should expand the boundaries," Kathrens said. "I think then we would have volunteers, of which we are certified to dart with PZP, which is a safe fertility control, and you start a darting volunteer program. It's supported by BLM. This worked very well in the Pryor Mountains of Montana, and it's a one year reversible vaccine... It might not be easy, but there are a lot of us that would want to help."

While the BLM tells CBS4 Investigates it is treating 56 of the mares gathered from the Piceance Basin with fertility control, and plans to set them free again, Kathrens feels it's not enough. 

"The horses deserve to live on the land and have freedom the way the Wild Horse and Burro Act intended that they live, on lands that are expansive enough," Kathrens said. 

Why it's done

The BLM says the roundup was necessary to protect the health of the horses and the rangelan. The land the horses are currently allowed to live on is also shared with livestock. 

The BLM is required to manage the land for multiple uses, including livestock grazing leases held by private ranchers. Ranchers pay the federal government $1.35 per animal unit a month for those leases. As CBS4 Investigates reported in May, that was the same price in the 1980s. 

Public records show there are currently four different ranching companies that hold livestock grazing permits in the Piceance East Douglas area. Those four ranchers are allowed to graze a total of more than 12,000 cows a year on that land. 

Before the roundup, the BLM says there were about 1,350 horses living in that area. Now that the gather is complete, there are only about 589 left in the basin. 

A group of wild horses run toward a trap during the Piceance East Douglas gather in July 2022 John Mason, CBS Colorado

"It's an ag-based county, where our roots run very deep in ag," said Ty Gates, Board Chairman for the Rio Blanco County Commissioners, the county in which the Piceance East Douglas herd area is located. "The agricultural industry supplies a lot of us with our food and it's their way of life, it's their way of making a living so they have to make a living just like the rest of us do, and it's very important to to protect that. I myself, I'm a sixth generation rancher, and so it's very important for me to to have the land and water preserved, you know, for the future generations."

Gates supports the roundup, saying the horses have made it virtually impossible for local ranchers to graze their cows on the land, because they have eaten too much forage. 

"Sharing the land with the horses is is a big, big topic and it needs to be done, but... if there's not food, and there's not water, and they're starving to death, and the ranchers have already pulled their livestock off, I think the ranchers done their part in preserving this for the horses," Gates said. 

Bill Mills, Field Manager for the BLM's White River Field Office, says his office actually requested to remove more horses, but the national office only green-lighted 750.

"The appropriate management level that we're required to manage for is 135 to 235 horses," said Mills. "So due to the overpopulation, it's important that we remove excess horses so that the range conditions can improve and support a healthy herd."

Mills says the agency is required by law to keep mustang herd sizes down to a number set by congress more than two decades ago. 

"It was authorized by an act of Congress. So when the law was passed, that number was established," Mills said. "We had a review process that we can go through, which we did in 2002, and actually increased the appropriate management level on the high end to 235."

Advocates like Kathrens feel that number is outdated and arbitrary, and should be revised, saying taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing these removals just to make room for local ranching business. 

"BLM has to be an advocate for the horses they manage, and I don't think they are advocates for the horses," Kathrens said. "I think they're advocates for people who use these lands."

Wild horses in a trailer are hauled away from the trap site during the Piceance East Douglas gather in July 2022 John Mason, CBS Colorado

Kathrens says she was also concerned about the horses' well-being during the roundup. 

Taking place in the peak of summer heat, some advocates felt it could be dangerous for the mustangs and their young foals. 

Mills says the agency wanted to conduct the roundup while the horses were in good condition. 

"Out of coordination with our national office, our goals were to conduct the gather when the horses are in the best possible condition they were going to be, so they've had an opportunity to utilize what did grow, and they got some food in their bellies, and so we wanted to gather them up when we thought it would be best for the horses," Mills said. 

While it was done

The BLM says six horses were euthanized during the roundups due to pre-existing conditions those animals had. 

"After we consulted with the veterinarian, it was determined that those conditions that they had, which were pre-existing prior to the gather, were not recoverable, and that the horse was actually suffering," Mills said. "It was definitely the humane thing to do. Ultimately it is the BLM's decision about what happens with that horse, and we care deeply about these horses, and we felt it was the best thing to do so the horse wasn't suffering."

Even though some wild horse advocates captured photos showing horses flipping over a barbed wire fence while running from the helicopter, the BLM says there were no significant injuries during the two-week-long gather.

Two horses trip over a barbed wire fence during the Piceance East Douglas Herd Management Area drive-trap gather in July 2022 Scott Wilson

 The BLM says one mare only had a minor laceration from that incident, "which was immediately treated by the veterinarian."

Scott Wilson

Colorado's governor has been vocal about his opposition to the gather. The governor offered a vet with the state veterinarian's office to be present during the event, to assist with any issues the horses may have. 

"We've had the assistant state veterinarian on site, working hand in hand with the BLM, getting to see up close and personal everything that's happening with the operation, and I think it's a demonstration of the great partnership we look forward to having with the state of Colorado moving forward," Mills said. 

What happens next

The 761 wild horses removed will be sent to a short-term holding facility in Utah. 

Some advocates are concerned for the safety of the horses in that facility, following a deadly equine flu outbreak at another BLM holding facility in Cañon City, Colo., earlier this year, that killed 145 mustangs. A report later said short-staffing issues was partially to blame for the horses not being properly vaccinated. 

Asked how he can assure the public these Piceance East Douglas horses won't suffer the same fate, Mills said, "we have a very comprehensive animal and welfare program, and I have a great deal of confidence that the facility in in Utah, where we're shipping them to, will apply all the principles and policies required by that program."

Many of the horses removed will be available for adoption. Mills says the BLM plans to hold three in-person adoption events in Colorado later this year, to give Coloradans a chance to adopt the wild horses from their own state. CBS Colorado will post information on those events when it becomes available. 

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