The truck rolls to a stop overlooking the basin and the herd of mustangs grazing within it. Inside the vehicle, volunteers peer through binoculars, identifying mares (female horses) one by one, checking them against spreadsheets and photos from years’ past, determining which ones need to be given “primary doses,” which ones get “boosters,” and which ones to leave alone.
Then the truck doors open and the volunteers climb out. Slinging dart guns over their shoulders, loaded with a nontoxic contraceptive vaccine known as porcine zona pellucida (PZP), they begin their slow approach.
“The mares are very wise and they know what we’re doing. If they’ve been darted before [they know] it hurts a little when it hits them,” says Stella Trueblood, a wild horse activist and volunteer who founded the Sand Wash Advocacy Team (SWAT). “You can approach them all day long with a camera, but as soon as that dart gun pops up, they’re gone.”
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) provides SWAT volunteers with PZP doses, which SWAT administers to female horses in Sand Wash Basin. They navigate the 160,000 acres of the Basin by truck and on foot, sometimes firing on their targets from as far as 50 yards away. It’s challenging work. But Trueblood and the others who spend their free time and personal resources doing this know it’s essential for preserving Colorado’s wild horse herds. As far as population control goes, PZP is by far the least invasive and most humane method BLM employs for maintaining herd numbers.
“The population does need to be controlled,” Trueblood says. “The simple thing would be to say, just leave them alone, and see what happens . . . but it’s more complex than that.”
Sand Wash Basin is one of several areas in Colorado where mustang herds have grown so large they’re severely impacting the environment, other native wildlife, and the horses themselves are becoming malnourished from a lack of available food and water. These parts of Colorado can sustain small horse herds, but their current sizes are many times the regions’ capacity, according to BLM.
That’s why this summer, BLM is yet again conducting mass roundups of Colorado’s mustangs using some controversial methods, and shipping them off to federal holding facilities. Neither BLM nor mustang advocacy groups take any joy in these operations, but BLM says it’s absolutely necessary for the horses’ survival.
“If we don’t manage wild horses at the appropriate management level, you will have a devastated landscape,” says Steven Hall, communications director for BLM. “You will have the dislocation of wildlife, and eventually you will have horses starving.”
Hall is very supportive of using PZP contraceptives on these herds, and has respect for the volunteers who administer it for BLM. It’s a great tool for maintaining mustang populations, he says—but on its own, contraception isn’t going to reduce the herds’ numbers by hundreds. That requires roundups.
“Bait and trap” roundups are preferred by almost everyone, where food and water are used to lure horses into corrals. It’s a slow process that usually only traps a handful of horses at a time, and requires help from volunteers with organizations like the Wild Horse Warriors (WHW), who oversee Colorado’s herd management areas (HMA) like Sand Wash Basin, Spring Creek Basin, Little Book Cliffs and Piceance-East Douglas.
But BLM’s most widely implemented approach is a point of contention. More expensive “drive trap” roundups—often called helicopter roundups—are used by the BLM across 10 Western states to manage more than 96,000 mustangs and burros roaming federally managed land. The loud, low-flying aircraft herds the animals as they follow what’s called a “Judas horse,” trained to lead herds straight to BLM corrals. A single day of helicopter roundups can gather well over 100 horses. In a month, they can gather over a 1,000.
“It’s a humane way to bring horses out of the wild,” Hall says. “[It’s] safe for the horses and safe for people.”
“Yeah, we disagree that helicopter roundups are humane,” says Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC). “They go out and they stampede horses out of their habitats. They force them to run at generally high speeds across really rugged terrain and then into traps.”
Roy says these roundups are cruel and traumatic for the animals. That’s a view shared by Trueblood and others among wild horse advocacy groups. They describe how the horses have to run for miles across the desert in 90 to 100 degree weather, into crowded pens where many of them panic, biting or kicking one another and thrashing wildly around. It’s not uncommon to see horses come out bleeding, with broken bones or fractured skulls. Some die of injuries, from overheating or exhaustion.
“I literally lost the strength in my legs when I saw the helicopter chasing those horses [the first time],” Trueblood says, still clearly shaken by the memory. “I don’t want to ever see that again.”
Many times, Roy says, mares and their foals are separated in the commotion—especially if the foals are too young or malnourished to keep up. Hall with BLM confirms this, explaining that it’s a huge problem and something BLM actively tries to avoid. But it does happen.
“You can hear [the foals and mares] screaming for each other when they’re doing this,” Roy says. “It’s horrible.”
Last September, BLM conducted two helicopter roundups on public land in Colorado; one in West Douglas and another in the Sand Wash Basin HMA, where Trueblood and other SWAT volunteers help BLM administer PZP. More than 680 of 896 mustangs were removed from Sand Wash Basin and transported to a holding facility in Canyon City. At present, BLM has 58,517 wild horses and burros in similar facilities across the Western U.S. The agency adopts out as many of the horses as possible, seeking homes for them where they’ll be taken care of. But some horses remain with BLM for months, and if they aren’t adopted, they’re moved indefinitely into long-term holding facilities.
In May 2022, at the Canyon City facility, over 140 of the captured Sand Wash Basin mustangs died from an influenza outbreak that the understaffed facility had neglected to vaccinate them for. It infuriated many animal activists and caught the attention of Gov. Jared Polis.
“I am deeply concerned about the tragic death of these iconic animals,” Polis said in a statement following the incident. “We have long advocated for the health, safety, and wellbeing of Colorado’s wild horses, and will continue to do so as we seek a humane future for our mustangs.”
Ahead of this year’s roundups in the Piceance-East Douglas HMA, Polis wrote BLM a letter compelling it to find another “more cost effective and humane” plan for these horses, asking the agency to pause roundups out of concern that BLM’s holding facilities were “ill-equipped to take on the hundreds of additional horses scheduled to be removed from the [Piceance-East Douglas] range” in September of 2022.
But BLM did not pause roundups. Instead, it rescheduled them from September to July. Because, as Hall explains, 80% of the Piceance-East Douglas forage was already eaten and gone, the area was still in a severe drought, and coming out of winter, 45% of those horses were exhibiting serious symptoms of malnourishment.
“[That’s] on the edge of an absolute catastrophe when you see those numbers,” Hall says. Unless Colorado wanted to see mass herd starvation in Piceance-East Douglas, or mass migration of the mustangs from public land onto private land, Hall says the only viable option was to expedite the helicopter roundups.
“The horses out there will never be in better condition than they are right now,” Hall says. The animals are only going to get weaker as the summer wears on into fall. So BLM moved up the roundups.
“When the BLM pushed the start date of the roundups, they basically foreclosed the opportunity to have any discussion of alternatives, besides sending over a thousand horses into the holding system,” Roy says. She contends that July is one of the worst times of year to do helicopter roundups. It’s the tail end of peak foaling season, she says, and the baby horses won’t be able to keep up with their parents like they would later on in September.
Piceance-East Douglas is currently home to about 1,380 horses. According to BLM, that area can sustainably support just 350. Meaning this year, it aims to remove 1,050 mustangs through a combination of both bait and trap and helicopter roundups. The estimated cost is $1.2 million, Hall says.
The bait-and-trap portion of those roundups lasted from June 29 to June 30, according to the BLM tracking website. Over those two days, 18 horses were trapped without a single death. Then, on July 15, the helicopter phase of the roundups began and has been ongoing since. So far, 715 horses have been rounded up (as of July 26) with three horse deaths occurring over that time. That leaves 335 horses that still need to be removed to meet the target population of 350.
When all’s said and done, and that number’s been achieved, the gathered horses will be shipped to Utah (not Canyon City) to Axtell holding facility. Asked if Axtell is better staffed than Canyon City’s facility, Hall says it’s “adequately staffed.” Though information obtained through FOIA by AWHC shows that 80 horses died at Axtell in 2021 from ailments ranging from failing body conditions to neurological disorders, castration evisceration or hemorrhages, fractures, colic or “strangles”—a bacterial disease that’s both deadly and highly contagious to horses.
“Horses are dying in these facilities because they’re not an appropriate place to keep wild, free-roaming animals,” Roy says.
Hall disagrees. He says historically, mustangs have been very safe in BLM facilities. The Canyon City outbreak was an exceptional case—an anomaly that BLM has been very transparent about and which it’s already making efforts to rectify.
“Any time domestic animals like horses or cattle are penned,” Hall says, “there is a risk of disease.”
And make no mistake, Hall notes: These horses are domestic. Contrary to popular perception, Colorado’s horses aren’t native to the area. These are not the same as deer or elk; they’re all descendants of horses brought over by Europeans, which were either released or escaped into the wild. “Feral” is a more accurate term for Colorado’s horses than “wild,” Hall says.
Semantics aside, the one thing everyone seems to agree on (BLM included) is the fact that the helicopter roundups have to stop. Gathering hundreds of horses in one helicopter-driven push every couple of years overtaxes the animals and sets the stage for populations to explode all over again.
“They could make the removals gradual over time with bait trapping, instead of this sledgehammer approach of bringing in helicopters and hauling off a thousand horses,” Roy says. In tandem with PZP administration, gradual bait trapping would allow BLM to easily and humanely maintain smaller populations. Large scale helicopter roundups would become unnecessary and it would significantly reduce the number of horses in BLM holding facilities like Canyon City and Axtell.
But it would require resources. BLM would have to hire people to take over for PZP volunteers like Trueblood. The agency would have to invest in year-round bait-and-trap operations and recalibrate its own management of HMA rangeland.
Cindy Wright, a co-founder of WHW, goes even a step further. She thinks that advocacy for these animals needs to be centralized.
“When you have 15 different advocacy groups going to Washington and asking for different things, there’s no way Washington can come together and make anything happen,” she says. “We need to have an organization that’s equal to the Cattlemen’s or the Wool Growers or the Wheat Growers [associations], then a department in Washington that is solely about wild horses.”
But Wright admits that would take a literal act of Congress to accomplish.
Hall says BLM is actively looking for alternatives to these large scale roundups. BLM would “absolutely prefer to find other ways to manage horse numbers besides helicopter gathers,” he says. But for the time being, it’s either helicopter roundups or mass starvation—a choice between the lesser of two evils.
As someone who works with BLM through SWAT, Trueblood wants to believe that what the agency is doing has to be done. She and the group of SWAT volunteers she works with administering PZP all care deeply about the animals and want what’s best for them. But it’s hard, even for someone like her, to know for sure what that is.
“I really don’t know what’s worse, leaving them to starve or rounding them up by helicopter,” she says. “I think it’s starving. But I’m not sure. I don’t know anymore, to be honest with you.”