State input stops Sand Wash Basin wild horse roundup early; 632 total horses removed
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:45 p.m. to include a response from the Bureau of Land Management’s national office.
The largest wild horse round up in Colorado history ended early, in part, because of pressure from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on the Bureau of Land Management to find a better, more collaborative way to manage the state’s wild horses.
The BLM initially set out to remove 733 horses from the Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County but stopped operations Sunday after rounding up 684 horses.
As planned, 49 horses — 24 stallions and 25 mares — were released back into the basin Saturday, and three mares were released in the Spring Creek Herd Management Area in southwest Colorado to promote genetic diversity. The remaining 632 horses were shipped to a BLM holding facility in Canon City.
“The state of Colorado’s commitment to help us find creative solutions to wild horse management encouraged BLM to settle on a lower total gather number given we had achieved population goals within the (herd management area),” said Steven Hall, communications director for BLM Colorado, in an email.
“With the commitment from the state, we will have the option to manage the wild horse population at a more sustainable level using contraception, bait trap gathers and other management options,” Hall continued.
Polis and others had called on the BLM to stop the gather before it started seeking for more input from other stakeholders in managing the horses, but the federal agency, which is congressionally designated to manage horses, didn’t balk, and the gather began Sept. 1.
In a statement to Steamboat Pilot & Today on Tuesday, Polis’ office said the early end to the gather is a direct result of state outreach to the BLM.
“The Wild Horse and Burro Act provides for opportunities for additional state involvement and partnerships that could take different forms,” said Elizabeth Kosar, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office. “The Polis Administration will be exploring options with the BLM, in particular working to engage experts, academics, advocates and (nongovernmental organizations) to avoid further roundups and for better planning and a more humane management approach.”
In a statement Monday, the BLM said it will look to the state to help the agency recruit more volunteers to help with birth control darting programs, as well as engaging stakeholders and experts in further discussion of wild horse management.
Chris Maestas, public information officer with the BLM’s Little Snake Field Office in Craig, estimated there are a little more than 250 horses left in the Sand Wash Basin, which is roughly 100 more than initially planned. The management level for the area is between 163 and 362 horses.
“When you look at the big picture, you had very few injuries, deaths, things of that nature,” Maestas said about his view of the overall roundup. “I think it went extremely well.”
Two horses were euthanized during the gather, and BLM says both were due to preexisting injuries and were not gather related. Advocates question that for at least one of these deaths, saying the explanation BLM gave did not makes sense.
The contractor, Utah-based Cattoor Livestock Cattle Roundup Co., finished shipping horses to the BLM’s holding facility in Canon City on Monday. There, the horses will be prepped to enter the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program with a veterinary examination, vaccinations, freeze-branding and gelding, after which the BLM will try to find them good homes.
In an interview last week, Maestas said Steve Leonard, BLM Colorado’s wild horse and burro specialist and facility manager in Canon City, was working with horse sanctuaries to find places for some of them to go.
“These are very popular and beautiful horses,” Maestas said. “We have a lot of people who are very interested in the Sand Wash Basin horses and being able to adopt those and take those home. … I think they have a really good chance to go to a good home.”
While thousands of horses have been adopted without issue, the adoption program has faced criticism from activists and politicians.
Part of the reason Polis asked BLM to stop the roundup was because of what he said in a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland were “legitimate concerns about the fate of the gathered horses.”
Due to overcrowding in government corrals, the BLM created the Adoption Incentive Program, which pays people $1,000 to adopt an untrained wild horse, and has increased the number of horses that make it into private care. As of the end of July, 8,250 horses have been adopted through the program since 2019.
But a New York Times investigation published in May found that some horses adopted through this program have ended up at slaughter auctions, with adopters dumping them at these auctions after the 12-month waiting period to get the title to the horse.
“The BLM does not send wild horses or burros to slaughter, and it is illegal to adopt or purchase a wild horse or burro from the BLM for the purpose of slaughter,” said Richard Packer, a spokesperson for BLM’s national office, in response to questions from Pilot & Today. “The BLM’s adoption and care agreements clearly state that adopters must provide good, humane care.”
The BLM also retains ownership of the horse for up to one year and conducts compliance checks before adopters receive the title for a horse, Packer said.
In July, the BLM’s Deputy Director for Programs Nada Wolff Culver said the agency would be taking additional steps to ensure horses, which maintain their wild status and protections when adopted, don’t go to slaughter auctions.
“While the vast majority of adopters already adhere to our requirements to provide a good and caring home, the BLM is now taking additional steps to secure the health and safety of adopted animals,” Culver said in a July 26 statement. “We will begin to make additional compliance visits post-adoption, bring more scrutiny to potential adopters and increase warnings to sale barns about the risks of illegally selling wild horses and burros, among other steps.”
The horses that don’t get adopted will stay in the BLM’s holding system of corrals and pastures across the country.
“Animals typically spend a few years in corrals, as we work to find them adoptive homes, before being transferred to an off-range pasture for long-term care in a large, free-roaming environment,” Maestas said in an email Monday.
In 2020, the BLM gathered nearly 11,000 wild horses and burros, according to BLM data. That same year, 4,700 horses were adopted.
On Aug. 31, the BLM announced it would expand space in its off-range corrals to accommodate 8,500 more horses in short-term holding and preparation facilities for horses being transferred to pastures. This includes new corrals in Canon City, as well as corrals in Utah and Wyoming.
There are about 50,000 horses currently in BLM corrals and pastures, with about 75% of them in the latter, according to BLM data. In 2020, holding costs approached $57 million, and another $10 million went toward getting horses adopted.
Adoption of horses gathered from the Sand Wash Basin likely won’t start until next year.
“They are not domesticated horses, they will not be the horse that you saw on the range, they will be different,” wrote the Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary on Facebook on Sunday. “They deserve our utmost care, they do not have a voice, and we have to be that voice for them. Let’s not let these guys down, they need us now more than ever.”
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