Wild horses: BLM backs off plan to round up West Douglas herd

There aren't a lot of wild horses left in Colorado, but a small herd of mustangs fifty miles north of Grand Junction just got a reprieve. Besieged by legal challenges of its plan to relocate "excess" horses from public lands to private holding facilities and pastures, the Bureau of Land Management has abruptly withdrawn its latest proposal to remove the West Douglas herd -- an isolated but hearty group of a hundred horses near Rangely that's been targeted for decades.

BLM's increased "gathers" of wild horses across the West in recent years have touched off protests and harsh criticism of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. The BLM insists that relocation is the only way to deal with overpopulation and increasing damage to natural resources; opponents insist that the roundups, which use helicopters to chase horses (sometimes to the point of collapse), are mostly unnecessary -- and unnecessarily cruel.

In the 1970s, many of the horses captured in roundups were put up for adoption, but that program soon became overwhelmed. The BLM acknowledges that it now has close to 40,000 horses and burros in holding pens or private pastures, at taxpayer expense -- more than are still left in the wild.

The tug-of-war over the West Douglas herd dates back to the 1980s. Cut off by road fencing from a larger herd years ago, the West Douglas bunch hasn't multiplied quite the way BLM observers expected. In 2009, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer halted one roundup, ruling that the BLM had exceeded its authority and failed to prove that the herd was overpopulated or consisted of "excess" animals.

The BLM returned with a new environmental assessment and another roundup plan last year, only to face a flurry of lawsuits from the ASPCA, the Cloud Foundation, and other animal welfare groups challenging proposed actions against the West Douglas bunch and another herd in the North Piceance area.

Now the BLM is saying it wants to take a "comprehensive look" at its wild-horse plans in Colorado. "This process will encourage participation from all stakeholders, and provide several well-advertised opportunities for public involvement," declares a recent press release.

Does the new move signal a change of heart -- or just a desire to generate more paperwork and demonstrable "public input" to pave a path around Judge Collyer's ruling? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, the modest but enduring pack of equines in northwest Colorado can keep on roaming their historic range, in all their "excess" glory.

More from our News archive: "Wild horses in Colorado: ASPCA, other groups file suit to block roundups of two herds."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast