Wild horses: Is drought worse than roundups for Colorado herd?

Wild horse activists managed to block the complete removal of a small but hardy herd of mustangs in northwest Colorado this week. Bureau of Land Management officials contend that severe drought conditions require roundup and removal of the West Douglas herd, for its own well-being -- but opponents say chasing, capturing and transporting the horses in extreme heat poses a greater risk to the animals' survival.

At a hearing Tuesday in a long-running federal court battle over the fate of one of the state's last remaining wild horse herds, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer limited the BLM's removal plan to forty to fifty horses that have refused to leave one of the most parched areas of their range this summer. That represents roughly a third of the remaining herd.

The BLM has been devising various plans to deal with the small group going back to the 1980s, when the West Douglas horses were cut off from a larger herd by road fencing. The government's position has been that relocation is the best long-term solution for horses that can no longer be supported by the available resources in their historic range. But Judge Collyer halted one roundup three years ago, ruling that the BLM had exceeded its authority and failed to prove that the herd was overpopulated or consisted of "excess" animals.

The agency has returned with other proposals, only to be met in court by an array of litigants, including Front Range Equine Rescue and the Cloud Foundation, which insist that the horses are healthy and have adequate water sources -- and that the roundups are unwarranted.

"The West Douglas wild horses have endured many droughts in the past," plaintiff Don Moore, a veterinarian who's observed the herd for decades, declared in a statement released by the Cloud Foundation. "We're concerned for their safety and well-being during capture and transportation, especially during extremely hot weather."

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Past roundups, sometimes featuring horses chased to exhaustion by helicopters or abused in pens, have generated videos by activists and outrage in Congress over the horses' treatment. Sixty-two of Colorado's 64 counties are now eligible for federal disaster relief because of drought conditions; read about it the federal disaster declaration here.

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