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BLM begins historic gather of Colorado wild horses

Helicopters drive the herd into trap zones. Horse advocates call it inhumane.

CRAIG, Colo. — Over the years, the number of wild horses in northwestern Colorado has grown and become an attraction to tourists looking for a flavor of Colorado life.

"Sand Wash Basin has the largest percentage of horses in Colorado of the four herds that are remaining," Carol Walker said.

Walker is an author and professional photographer who's been fighting to end horse gathers like the one taking place in the area west of Craig starting Wednesday. 

"This is the largest roundup in Colorado history," Walker said. "Helicopter round-ups are very inhumane."

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will use a helicopter to drive the wild horses into a trap zone. Walker said it is very dangerous and cruel to foals trying to stick with their families.

"I was at the last helicopter round-up in 2008 that they did there, and 11 horses died," Walker said.

The Bureau of Land Management wants to reduce the number of wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin from around 900 to 160, the lower end of what the BLM calls the Appropriate Management Level. This is a reduction of about 82%.

"We follow very stringent safety requirements. We take good care of those horses. We make sure the foals are separated so they don't get trampled," Bruce Sillitoe, BLM Little Snake Field Office Manager, said. "They’re amazing animals and we need to take good care of them. We need to gather them in a humane manner. We need to treat them in a very careful and concerted way."

   

The Little Snake Field Office oversees the Sand Wash Basin. Sillitoe said the drought conditions have left too little water and too little vegetation for all the animals in the area.

"The horses are important. The sage grouse is important. The antelope are important," Sillitoe said. "We need to make sure there's plenty of food in the kitchen for all of them."

Walker said she was just in the Sand Wash Basin taking pictures of healthy horses drinking at watering holes.

"These horses are not dying. I was there three weeks ago," Walker said. "Things have gotten pretty sparse during the summer, but then the rains came."

Walker believes the real reason the BLM wants to remove the wild horses is to allow ranchers to let their sheep graze and drink on the same land. The BLM charges a grazing fee to ranchers. 

"The wild horses are supposed to be treated as the principal species in these herd management areas where they exist," Walker said. "To put livestock out when there’s supposedly a drought emergency is crazy."

Sillitoe said the livestock consume only about 4% of the water and vegetation.

"The other 95 percent of the resources are used by horses," Sillitoe said. "We have data on that. It shows clearly that the horses are using the abundance of the resources."

The gather is expected to take two to three weeks. Once the horses are gathered, they will be put up for public adoption at a facility in Cañon City. 

"If there is a drought, I say remove the livestock," Sillitoe said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland formally asking to delay the gather, to no avail.

Walker believes wild horses should be left in the wild.

"It's devastating and people will now after this round-up go there and not be able to find the horses," Walker said. 

After the first day of the gather, the BLM reports that 22 studs, 32 mares, and 11 foals were captured.

RELATED: Hundreds of wild horses in Moffat County deal with a drought

RELATED: BLM, advocates battle over whether wild horses have enough water

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Credit: Bryan Wendland
A wild horse grazes in the Sand Wash Basin west of Craig, Colorado.