A Look Back: The Piceance Wild Horse Roundup

By Amy Hadden Marsh

Earlier this summer, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducted the largest roundup in Colorado history in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area (HMA) near Meeker. According to BLM documents, the HMA was the site of 20  roundups between 1980 and 2017 - a telling example of BLM mismanagement.  

The 2022 roundup slashed the estimated population of 1,385 wild horses to just 665 horses. The agency’s long-term goal is to further reduce the population in this 190,000-acre HMA to the low end of the “appropriate” management level (AML) of 135 - 235 horses.

​The agency’s Piceance East Douglas “gather” page is silent on the whereabouts or plans for the 59 horses that are unaccounted for. It is believed that they are mares held at an undisclosed location for 30 days for GonaCon treatment, pursuant to the BLM’s decision record and environmental assessment for the roundup.

Public Controversy

The BLM’s Piceance-East Douglas wild horse roundup was met with widespread public opposition.The capture operation also caught the attention of Colorado Governor Jared Polis, First Gentleman Marlon Reis, and Congressman Joe Neguse (D-CO-02). They urged the BLM to delay the roundup, originally scheduled for September, due to the deaths of 145 wild horses at the Canon City, Colorado holding facility and until other, less costly and disruptive alternatives for the Piceance wild mustangs could be discussed.

Ignoring the requests of Gov. Polis and Congressman Neguse, the BLM announced on June 13 that it would begin the roundup in July, citing lack of forage and water, and horses in poor condition. That decision sparked so much controversy that the BLM scheduled a virtual public meeting to explain its actions. The meeting was held on June 15, the same day the Colorado Sun reported that the governor’s office was disappointed by the BLM’s decision to move ahead with the roundup, calling it “costly and wasteful” and stating that the BLM ignored “cost-effective and humane alternative methods of management.”

At the meeting, the BLM pointed to drought, lack of vegetation on the range, malnourished horses, and damage to Greater Sage Grouse habitat as justification for the emergency removal. Elijah Waters, BLM’s northwest Colorado district manager, cited a BLM field assessment of the horses. “Out of a sample size of 450 horses, we estimated that about 45% of 'em were in a body condition of three or less,” he explained. 

AWHC’s Scott Wilson, a noted wildlife photographer, traveled to the HMA shortly before the virtual meeting and found a different story. He said in an interview that he saw “stunningly healthy” wild horses and green grasses. “I was always very careful if I published pictures of green grasses, to say it's not like this everywhere,” he explained “But if you were to listen to the BLM narrative, it wasn't like this anywhere!”  

What About the Cows?

“Yes, there is livestock grazing [on the Piceance-East Douglas HMA],” said Waters at the virtual meeting, adding that permittees were using only 40% of their allotted AUMs this year. (One AUM equals the amount of forage to sustain one cow/calf pair, one horse, or five sheep on the range per month.) Ranchers who have permits to graze are called “permittees” and are allotted a certain amount of AUMs for cattle and sheep. The wild horses are also allotted a certain amount. 

This forms the basis of much of the conflict around wild horse and burro management in the West: Some ranchers say there are too many wild horses and burros on the range and they eat up all of the forage, leaving too little for livestock. On the other hand, a 2021 report by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) shows that cows outnumber wild horses 30 to 1 on BLM lands. 

The forage allocation in the Piceance East Douglas HMA reflects this imbalance, with a livestock allocation of 57,105 AUMS – enough to sustain 4,759 cow/calf pairs or 23,794 sheep for a year, while horses are allocated a maximum of 2,820 AUMs, which equates to just 235 wild horses. That’s more than eight times more forage allocated to commercial livestock grazing - a discretionary use of the public lands - than to wild horses, whose protection is mandated under federal law. 

PEER states that the BLM scapegoats wild horses and burros for range degradation but that most BLM grazing allotments within HMAs fail the agency’s own rangeland standards. “Approximately 11.5 million acres of the 21.5 million acres of allotments within HMAs assessed by BLM to date, identify livestock as a significant cause of that failure.” The report adds that “[o]f the almost 22 million acres of HMA area within allotments that BLM has assessed, only a tiny fraction - just 1% or 311,000 acre - has been identified as failing standards due to wild horses alone, with no mention of livestock.”

Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a rangeland watchdog group, agrees that livestock and the BLM’s lack of assessments of grazing allotments paints an inaccurate picture of true wild horse and burro rangeland impacts. In a 2022 report, WWP showed that, in 2021, 54% of allotments and 67% of AUMs were legally renewed without updated rangeland analyses due to a loophole in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, including two allotments within the Piceance-East Douglas HMA. 

PEER adds, “[l]ivestock are by far the most frequently identified cause of allotment failure to meet standards for quality of water, vegetation, and soils, as well as the ability to support wildlife nationwide, including for allotments within HMAs.”

Conservation groups, including the national Sierra Club and the American Wild Horse Campaign, have called for the removal of livestock or reduced grazing in HMAs to fully and accurately assess range damage.

Shifting Justifications

After Wilson’s photographs from the Piceance HMA in June showed a preponderance of healthy horses and grasses, the BLM embarked on a series of new and shifting narratives.

Wild horses, Piceance East Douglas HMA, 06/2022. WilsonAxpe Photography

In early July, the agency turned its focus from the body condition of the horses to another justification for the emergency roundup: damage to the Dudley Bluffs Bladderpod (Physaria congesta), a rare plant species which grows only in a certain area in the Piceance East Douglas HMA. The photo used in an announcement about the plant on the BLM’s Facebook page shows an overgrazed riparian area with a few horses. But, that area is actually in a dry bed of Yellow Creek, far from the home of Physaria congesta. The area is also part of a livestock grazing allotment, but cattle are noticeably missing from the photograph. 

Bureau of Land Management photo of horses in an overgrazed riparian area (from Facebook)

Early July, cattle (middle) and wild horses (background) on the same area of Piceance East Douglas HMA. 

On July 5, Colorado ecologist Delia Malone visited the area, including near where the plant lives. “Field observations document that these plants are abundant, vigorous, reproductively successful and that wild horses have had little to no negative impact on the plant or their habitat,” wrote Malone in a subsequent report on HMA range conditions. Malone had previously studied the Dudley Bluffs Bladderpod and is familiar with the threats to the species’ survival. 

According to Malone, the plant thrives in the shale barren ecosystem on a different part of the HMA than is shown in the BLM photo. She said that, due to its federally-protected status, the exact location of the plant cannot be divulged. But, she added, “It never occurs in riparian areas.”

In short, the BLM’s claims about wild horses damaging the Dudley Bluffs bladderpod were unsubstantiated. 

Physaria congesta habitat in Piceance Basin, found only on upland shale barrens. D Malone photos

Malone’s report concluded:

  • Dudley Bluffs bladderpod is not found in the area depicted in the BLM photo. 
  • Wild horses have not trampled the plant to near extinction. 
  • Wild horses are in good shape and not malnourished.
  • Range conditions are not as dire as BLM’s assessment .
  • Wild horses are not responsible for the bulk of the degradation.

“In my ecological perspective, the horses are not the problem,” Malone told Aspen Public Radio. “It's the cattle and the sheep that are severely damaging the landscape.”  

The report was released on July 11. Two days later, the BLM again shifted its narrative. Just over a month after claiming that 45% of the Piceance-East Douglas herd was in poor condition, the BLM backpedaled.  "Fortunately, rain has greened up the range,” said Eric Coulter, BLM spokesperson, to the Grand Junction Sentinel. “And horses are now in the best condition, making it the ideal time to gather them.” In other words, the agency pivoted from “the range is degraded and the horses are starving so we have to round them up” to “the range is green and the horses are healthy so we have to round them up.”

Wilson said the roundup had little to do with range or body conditions and with so many foals and pregnant mares on the range, the timing was far from ideal. “The chief health emergencies facing these wild horses and foals right now are the impending helicopter chase across miles of hazardous Piceance Basin terrain and the prospect of years in government holding facilities,” he said after returning from the HMA.

Despite Malone’s report, official letters, and a tour of the HMA with the Governor, the BLM refused to budge from its decision to remove wild horses from the Piceance in July. 

The agency did, however, grant Polis’ request to have a state veterinarian on-site. “While I remain disappointed that this and other large roundups continue to happen,” wrote the Governor in a Facebook post. “I'm heartened by the Bureau of Land Management accepting my offer to have the State Veterinarian's office on-site in the Piceance Basin during the upcoming wild horse gather, and by their additional responsiveness to the specific concerns I've raised for the health and safety of foals in particular.”

Roundup Begins

The BLM began capturing wild horses on June 16 with a bait trapping operation that netted 18 horses. 

On July 15, the helicopter roundup began.  Advocates expressed concern about the timing of the roundup during foaling season, when there are pregnant mares and newborn foals on the range. They were concerned as well about stampeding horses with helicopters in high summer temperatures over long distances. In response, the BLM noted that it would take special care with foals and would move the traps frequently to limit the distances the horses are run. The agency also included in its daily reports trap site temperatures ranging from the mid-70s to the mid-90s. 

Wilson believes advocate concerns are helping to drive incremental improvements in operational transparency. While he clearly disputes the agency's decision to run the horses in hot weather for miles, especially pregnant mares and foals, he called the publication of temperatures in the daily reports a modest sign of progress. “Have you ever seen [the BLM] post temperatures in their daily reports before? That's a consequence of the advocate voice” he said. “We are holding the BLM accountable. But, we are still a long way from the level of transparency which cameras in traps or on the front of helicopters would bring,” he added. 

He was also on site, photographing the operations in Piceance Basin, and witnessed some painful situations, including the fence flip incident. “A mare suddenly and dramatically somersaulted, having been driven into some barbed wire,” Wilson explained. The wire fence was near the trap site but was unflagged, causing several horses, including a foal, to crash into it at a high speed.  

Wilson said it shouldn’t have happened.

Horses flipped over an unflagged, barbed-wire fence, Piceance East Douglas roundup. WilsonAxpe Photography

 “This was right in front of the trap site,” he said. “It was an alarming consequence of not marking or clearing hazards properly.” 

Horses struggle after flipping over an unflagged, barbed-wire fence during a roundup. WilsonAxpe Photography

After the wire was flagged, the contractor continued to run horses through the same route but Wilson said they opened a small section of the jute run into the trap. “That just gave [the horses]

an avenue to escape, which they did twice,” he explained. “And, I don’t know if it was frustration or the end of the day, but the pilot went home at that point.” 

Helicopter attempts to re-corral wild horses escaping through the jute. WilsonAxpe Photography

Another roundup day ended after about 20 minutes of capturing horses very close to the trap. “[The contractors] set up the whole trap operation complete with a helicopter,” he explained. “There was a band of what turned out to be 10 horses, honestly, 175 yards from the trap, and they fired up the helicopter, drove those horses into the trap, and then called it a day.” Wilson called it a waste of taxpayer money. “They could have sent in a cowboy and brought [the horses] in.” 

Wilson vividly captured the fear and danger in crowded pens after the horses are stampeded into traps and separated from their families.

Chaos reigns when wild stallions are crowded together at the trap site. WilsonAxpe Photography

Helicopter Roundup Cut Short

AWHC launched a statewide media campaign to bring attention to the roundup, including print, social media and two weeks of prime-time ads on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News in Denver. The ad campaign also featured a takeover of the Denver Post’s politics page and other digital advertising. “Over 19,000 Colorado citizens sent messages to their Congressional representatives, demanding an end to the Piceance Basin roundup,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the AWHC, speaking of the overwhelming response to the ad campaign. 

The BLM ceased operations on August 1, two weeks prior to the scheduled end of the roundup. The agency captured 867 horses, 183 fewer than the goal of 1,050. The BLM had received approval to permanently remove 750 wild horses from the range, but ended up shipping a total of 761 to a holding facility in Axtell, Utah. 

An Uncertain Future

U.S. taxpayers shelled out $559,250 to Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc to capture and ship the Piceance-East Douglas horses to  Utah. (The horses were shipped out of state because the Cañon City, Colorado holding facility remains closed after a ̃respiratory illness killed 145 West Douglas horses there last spring.) That does not include long-term costs of warehousing those animals in short- and long-term holding facilities. Costs that, at the BLM’s estimate of $48,000 per horse, could run into the tens of millions. 

Meanwhile, the agency continues to reassure the public that the captured Piceance-East Douglas mustangs  - and all captured wild horses and burros - will be well taken care of. 

But recent mustang rescues from kill pens plus internal assessments that document deficient conditions at holding facilities tell a different story. And the agency’s Adoption Incentive Program (AIP) - which pays people $1,000 per animal to adopt up to four horses per adopter - is directly related to an influx of federally-protected wild horses and burros into the slaughter pipeline. (Just this month, AWHC worked with Skydog Sanctuary to rescue 16 BLM mustangs out of a kill pen in Eaton, Colorado. All of the mustangs for whom we received brand numbers were adopted through the AIP.)

All of this paints a bleak picture of off-range mismanagement plus a lack of oversight and accountability that jeopardizes the welfare of captured wild horses and burros. 

AWHC’s investigations team will keep close tabs on the Piceance-East Douglas horses, including those removed, those returned to the range, and those who remain free. 

Never Again?

As public and Congressional pressure on the BLM to reform its management practices grows, a  new way of managing these icons of the America West is emerging.

On July 18, three days after the drivetrap roundup began in the Piceance Basin, Congressman Joe Neguse introduced an amendment to H.R. 8294, the Fiscal Year 2023 Appropriations Bill, that would prohibit funding for roundups using helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft. And reacting to abuse at roundups throughout the West this year, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) introduced the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act to ban the use of helicopters to capture wild horses. These legislative efforts are the latest in a decades-long battle against helicopter roundups. In 1959, the Wild Horse Annie Act, which prohibited motorized vehicles and fixed-wing aircraft in roundups, became law. But, in 1976, that was reversed in Section 404 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act

Within the past year, the Colorado BLM has mentioned moving away from helicopter drivetrap roundups. Bill Mills, the field manager for the White River Field Office, told the Steamboat Pilot & Today, that the goal for the Piceance-East Douglas HMA is “not ever have a helicopter back in it.” He said, “Once we get to the appropriate management level, we don’t want a helicopter, and we don’t want to ever send a horse to holding.” Colorado’s Wild Horse and Burro specialist, Steve Leonard said the same thing after the 2021 Sand Wash Basin roundup.

The appointment of Doug Vilsack, formerly of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, as the new BLM Colorado state director, offers an opportunity for reform and change. AWHC looks forward to working with Mr. Vilsack to improve humane management of Colorado’s wild horses, to ensure that fertility control programs have the resources they need to succeed, and allow political leaders like Governor Polis and Congressman Joe Neguese to lead the way to reform. 

Thanks to everyone who sent letters, emails, and made phone calls to congressional leaders on behalf of the Piceance-East Douglas wild horses. You are making a difference! Please click here to find out more about AWHC’s work and what you can do to help.

Amy Hadden Marsh, writer and editor, comes to AWHC from an award-winning background in journalism. Amy spent 15 years as public affairs show host, reporter, and news director for KDNK Community Radio in Carbondale, CO, winning several Edward R. Murrow and Colorado Broadcasters Association awards along the way. She has won awards for her print work from the Colorado Press Association. She has also been a freelance journalist since 1990, publishing in national magazines.