As the U.S. Bureau of Land Management sees it, last month's removal of 167 wild horses from a rugged, remote area in Rio Blanco County was a success, easing the strain on damaged range lands and substantially reducing a herd that had become too large to be sustainable.
Wild-horse advocates tend to see the roundup in starker terms. Two fatalities in the course of what BLM officials prefer to call a "gather" demonstrated the cruelty of using panic-inducing helicopters in the roundups, they say, and the capture of so many horses from the West Douglas Herd Area — who have since been transported to Canon City, to be part of the state prison system's mustang-training program for inmates — has effectively eradicated one of the few remaining Colorado wild-horse herds.
"We like to think of Colorado as being more in tune with humane treatment of animals," says Ginger Kathrens, executive director of The Cloud Foundation, a Colorado Springs-based advocacy group. "This roundup showcased the inhumanity of helicopter roundups."
The roundup, which took place south of Rangely over the course of a week, came after federal courts rejected a series of legal challenges by The Cloud Foundation and other groups. The BLM contractor employed to remove the horses, Utah-based Sun J Livestock, has drawn complaints over the use of electric prods, buzzing helicopters too close to exhausted horses and other alleged abuses, prompting numerous observers from animal rights groups to follow the latest procedure closely.
One member of the West Douglas herd died as it was being moved into a trailer for transport, after being trampled by another horse and getting its neck broken. But many observers were more outraged by the other death — a foal that Kathrens says was chased for an hour before it was roped. A report prepared by the BLM claims that a Sun J employee "successfully and gently roped the colt" — but the animal then bolted and fractured its right front leg. Yet video taken by observers indicates that the colt was already injured before it was roped, and a BLM spokesman confirms that version of events. The colt was subsequently euthanized.
A photo from the Cloud Foundation's Facebook page shows a helicopter and a Judas horse (right) set to lead West Douglas mustangs into a trap.
The BLM has prepared numerous plans over the years to "zero out" the West Douglas herd, claiming that its removal is necessary "to establish, maintain and preserve a thriving ecological balance" in accordance with the 1971 law directing the agency to manage America's wild horses. But critics of those plans have vigorously disputed the BLM's assertions about overpopulation, starving horses and environmental damage, while lawmakers have questioned the cost of removal. Since the number of horses captured far exceeds the demands for adoption, there are now nearly as many horses in government-financed holding pens and leased pastures as there are in the wild. (Targeting 167 horses for removal from West Douglas reportedly matches the number of horses that the Department of Corrections was willing to accept.)
Activist groups maintain that ranchers, who also use BLM land for livestock, and energy interests are behind the push to remove more horses. "The reason these horses were removed is because the livestock permitees didn't want any competition in there," Kathrens says. "It's the classic stuff that goes on all over the West. The permittees pay almost nothing to use the land. They trash it and then they blame the horses for range degradation."
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The BLM estimates that up to 200 horses still remain in the West Douglas Herd Area, which the agency believes can support only about thirty horses at best. Kathrens disputes those figures, saying they're based on wildly inflated reproduction estimates. "There may be a few remaining, but I think they cleared almost everything out of there," she says. "It already has been zeroed out."
If the West Douglas herd is all but gone, that leaves four smaller, managed herds in western Colorado: one near Craig, another outside Grand Junction, one in southwest Colorado, and the Piceance-East Douglas herd, separated from West Douglas by fencing along a county road. BLM claims 377 horses in the East Douglas bunch, but Kathrens is skeptical of that figure — and the future of the iconic mustang in the state, given the fate of the West Douglas horses.
"I just don't know how they can justify what they did," she says. "People are really upset. This was unnecessary and regrettable."