2021 in Review: The Wild Horses of Sand Wash Basin
In a year that included fraught local election conversations, pandemic and vaccine debates and deaths and no shortage of local bleed from national political rhetoric, perhaps the most visceral emotion was inspired in Moffat County and elsewhere by horses.
The wild horses of Sand Wash Basin, namely, were on the tip of more tongues than many might have anticipated in 2021, as the decision by the Bureau of Land Management to gather the vast majority of the longtime local herd amid drought conditions and other environmental concerns drew the notice of the governor and more.
In early summer, the word from the dedicated and fervent advocates for the horses — once a herd of more than 800, now fewer than 200 — was almost desperate. The horses, they said, were out of water, as the drought that ravaged the high country in the mountain west took part of its local toll. An effort in conjunction with the BLM was made to pump water to watering holes to avoid a dangerous density of horses around what was said to be at the time the only such oasis.
“Some horses are eating mud,” Cindy Wright said in a story published in the Craig Press June 17. “It’s bad.”
Not long thereafter, though, a long-planned move by the BLM was put into action. The plan was to substantially diminish the herd — which BLM spokespeople said was over large for the area based on environmental metrics by a factor of about seven — via a large-scale gather.
Despite feverish protest from local advocates and others, that’s what eventually happened.
A major operation beginning September 1 included helicopter wrangling techniques that were decried by horrified advocates and ended with a little more than 150 wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin area, a number of them sterilized to avoid over-reproduction.
But before that, a fraught saga that included heavy rain and a plea from Gov. Jared Polis himself brought significant attention to the federal action.
Over a series of weeks, hundreds and hundreds of horses were removed in what is believed to be the largest such gather in Colorado history. Most were relocated to Cañon City to be auctioned off.
The plan was to eschew incremental steps and make a significant stroke at the problem of what BLM said was a far-too-large herd for the region to sustain.
“Absolutely, my goal is to not have another large gather here,” said Steve Leonard, BLM Colorado’s Wild Horse and Burro specialist, to the Steamboat Pilot & Today at the time.
The discussion among advocates in late September, after the gather, was one of dejection.
“No horses,” wrote one notable advocate, Stella Trueblood, in a Facebook update, as recorded by the Steamboat Pilot & Today. “The basin is devoid of life and will not be a place you want to visit.”
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