By Carol Walker
The agency entrusted for a half-century to protect our wild equines — the Bureau of Land Management — has completed three large-scale helicopter roundups of Colorado mustangs since last summer, removing 2,000 wild horses from their rangelands and separating highly social animals from their bonded, familial herds, forever.
The largest roundup ended Aug. 1 and set a record when agents removed 864 wild horses belonging to the Piceance-East Douglas herd of Rio Blanco County, named for the white river that flows through this far western part of the state.
Under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, our land managers are supposed to protect wild horses and burros — an integral part of our public lands — from capture, harassment or death.
While Colorado BLM agents continually assure us of their commitment to “humane handling and treatment of wild horses and burros” in the wild and off the range, the spectacle of these chaotic exercises in “management” and documented results tell another story.
Observers have photographed and reported mustangs suffering broken legs and dying from broken necks; one horse flipped upside down, landing on barbed wire. Most recently, observers saw a pregnant mare and young foals being chased down for miles in sweltering heat. I observed foals struggling to keep up, as helicopter pilots at Sand Wash Basin last summer pushed the herd too fast in 95-degree heat.
There is nothing humane about a roundup.
Horses are prey animals, running for their lives from a flying predator that sounds much worse than your neighbor’s power lawnmower at 4 a.m. This is harassment, which wildlife statutes define as any act that creates the likelihood of injury or disrupts normal behavior, such as eating, resting and bearing young.
When interviewed by The Denver Post, land managers prove unfazed by the cruelty of their actions. Six captured horses were euthanized during this last roundup near Meeker. These horses — like the ones before them — reportedly had to be killed for health reasons, BLM managers say. But how can we trust an agency whose core mission is to remove animals, not treat and save individuals they expect to injure?
Why should Coloradans trust an agency cited for neglectful care two months ago by a team (including a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian) investigating the swift die-off of 146 wild horses at the Cañon City prison complex?
According to investigators, BLM staff neglected to administer flu vaccines for seven months to horses held there from last summer’s West Douglas herd roundups in northern Colorado. Euthanasia was done by untrained staff, and bodies were moved with the same front loaders used to move hay, according to the BLM’s own report, compounding the spread of disease. Investigators found a poorly run and unsafe facility, noting sharp edges in pastures that could cause injuries.
How tragically ironic that BLM’s rationale for roundups today centers on saving horses from poor habitats.
I visited BLM’s Cañon City corrals to adopt a mustang in August 2020. Cameras were forbidden and I can surmise why. The yearling I adopted was very thin with his tail chewed off by other hungry youngsters, a very sad contrast to the healthy sassy youngster at his mother’s side that I had last seen nine months before wild and free. I had spent time with this foal on the range before he and others were rounded up and removed.
I contacted Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse expressing my concerns about the lack of care and starving horses at the Colorado facility.
BLM’s response was a veterinarian’s letter stating, “The vast majority of the animals observed at the Cañon City facility were in good condition.” BLM did allow two reporters into the facility but did not allow them to see horses from the Red Desert Complex herd, and those were the horses that I saw were in poor condition.
There has got to be a better way to treat wild horses, and thankfully, Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, have rightly been calling for a halt to these roundups for an opportunity to consider alternative solutions. But the BLM has refused to listen.
Thankfully the media is following this story, but what is less reported is the vast majority of wild horses that were rounded up last summer from Sand Wash Basin and still have not been available for adoption. There are many Coloradans who love and care about these horses and are ready to adopt and take them home, rather than see individuals from our most popular herd continue to languish in horse prison.
This year has proven, yet again, that wild horses in captivity suffer physically and emotionally. BLM managers admit the reason they failed to vaccinate was that mustangs were “unusually high strung.” When stressed and kept in crowded conditions, wild animals are more likely to succumb to illness.
Continuing this circus style of management is a recipe for disaster. Wild horses need to be managed on the range, where they belong, with their families. It’s time for Coloradans who care about wild horses to speak up. Wildlife belongs to all of us. Tell your elected representatives in Colorado and in Congress that Coloradans want to see our wild horses remain wild and free.
Carol Walker is an award-winning photographer and author and has been observing, documenting and advocating for wild horses since 2004. She has worked with the top national wild horse advocacy groups in the country and recently became a member of Colorado Council for Animal Wellness Action. She lives in Longmont, CO with her three adopted mustangs.