Roundup Report: The Wild Horses of the Wyoming Checkerboard

PROPERTY OF AWHCThe Checkerboard region in Wyoming includes five separate Herd Management Areas (HMAs), Adobe Town, Salt Wells Creek, Great Divide Basin, White Mountain and Little Colorado, and spans 3.4 million acres. The BLM’s unscientifically low Appropriate Management Level (AML) for the HMAs – the number of horses the agency claims that the range can sustainably support in conjunction with other animals and resource uses – is just 1,550–2,165 horses. This population limit was established based on the allocation of 91% of available forage in these areas to cattle and sheep, privately owned by the Rock Springs Grazing Association.

The BLM’s plan for the horses would reduce their numbers to the low AML of 1,550, at a density of 1 horse per 2,217 acres. The BLM’s plan would permanently remove 3,555 wild horses—or nearly 50 percent of the state’s total wild horse population—making this the largest wild horse roundup and removal operation in the Program’s history.

It is time for the BLM to manage wild horse habitat for the wild horses. 


Photo by Kimerlee Curyl

Between three contracts (here, here, and here), this roundup will cost the taxpayers at least $1.23 million to just roundup roughly 4,300 beloved horses from the Checkerboard. Of that, only approximately 800 are planned for return to the HMAs, so the removal will also bring along with it the lifetime cost of approximately $175 million to house the remaining 3,555 horses for the remainder of their lives in government holding corrals. The contractors for this roundup are Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc. and Shayne Sampson.

On top of that, the taxpayer foots the bill for federally subsidized livestock grazing on public lands as well. The federal grazing fee remains at its historic low of $1.35 per animal per month. That’s a steep discount, thanks to the taxpayer subsidies that prop up this federal entitlement program. (Estimates indicate that the overall cost to taxpayers for the federal grazing program could be as much as $500 million annually.

Helicopters are scheduled to fly starting on October 7, 2021. We will update this report as the operation progresses.


October 17, 2021: 50 wild horses lost their freedom today.

The following report is from photographer Carol Walker who is onsite as a representative for AWHC.

Observation continues to be extremely poor, I could only see the ear tips of the horse being chased by helicopters, but I saw plenty of the helicopter bearing down on the horses of the Great Divide Basin. This is not meaningful observation. The only time I got a good look at the horses was when they escaped and ran by. Despite repeated requests by all the observers yesterday, we were not moved to a spot where we could see the horses going into the trap or even running up to it. From this vantage point, we could not assess the condition of the horses, how long they had been run, if they fought going in or if there were any injuries. We could not even tell exactly how many came in. And last night we received this message from the BLM: “Tomorrow we are planning on gathering in the Great Divide Basin at the same trap site with the same observation location. BLM has discussed, at length, different observation locations, but none are available at the current trap site. Please understand that trap sites are chosen and designed to gather horses in a safe manner with our primary concerns being the safety of the public, the horses, BLM employees, and contractors. BLM is currently discussing moving trap sites after operations Tomorrow.”  So nothing will change.

I am here at the trap site and the only other member of the public is a film crew. 

The runs:

  • The first run I saw had maybe 8 then 6 wild horses in it. We were allowed to move up about 100-150 feet closer so we could see the horses' heads appear for 5 seconds instead of three. I have to laugh - Brad Purdy who is the BLM Public Information rep who is in charge of the observers was describing to the other people what he *thought* was happening - the horses moving into the jute wings, the Judas horses released, the helicopter driving them into the trap - because we cannot actually SEE this happening. 
  • Another group just came in around 6-7, again it is nearly impossible to see. 
  • A larger group of 8-12 was driven in by the helicopter and a black yearling colt jumped over the jute and escaped. The helicopter went to hold him there while a wrangler rode out to him and roped him. The wrangler spent quite a bit of time slowly leading the colt into the trap. 
  • A group with several gray horses was driven into the trap. I thought one stallion was going to try to jump over the jute, he was eyeing it, but he did not. Although there are some grullas, blacks and the odd buckskin in this herd, the vast majority are bay. 
  •  Two more horses came in and now we have been waiting for over an hour and the wind is picking up.
  •  Group of about 10 horses be driven by the helicopter including a gorgeous black Appaloosa with blanket markings. They turned and faced the helicopter several times after running away from the jute wings leading to the trap. They stayed in a tight group and just were not having it. The BLM wild horse specialist finally called it and let them go. Appaloosas are extremely rare in this herd. They remain free! 

During the day, we heard that there was a young black foal found and they sent a wrangler out who successfully caught the foal. A little later, Jay D’Ewart says the black colt matches the description of the hunters yesterday. He is 1 month old and they will take him to Rock Springs where all the mares are and hope he “mothers up” but if he doesn’t they have people there who will foster him.

After the operation was called for the day, w e went to the short term corrals and heard that 50 horses had been captured, no injuries or deaths. The black foal had apparently found his mother and the two were shipped together to Rock Springs corrals. I next went to the overlook there but could not see him - not all the horses were visible from the overlook.





October 16, 2021: 37 wild horses lost their freedom today.

The following report is from photographer Carol Walker who is onsite as a representative for AWHC.

Today was cold and clear on the 9th day of the roundup of wild horses from the Wyoming checkerboard. The helicopter contractors, the Cattoors, are focusing on the wild horses of the Great Divide Basin HMA. 

We saw a family of 5 horses two mares one very small foal a bigger foal and a black stallion. We couldn't see the trap from our observation point we can see the horses running toward the trap quite a ways away then ears above the jute and the helicopter. We saw the helicopter going
back and forth and back and forth and finally, the family escaped mares and foals went one way the stallion another. This is a terrible observation point. We would be better off where our cars were originally.

On the third run we were able to move up closer but everything is going on behind a hill we have a good view of the helicopter but just briefly ears and tops of heads we cannot see the trap at all. We think 6-8 horses came in at least 1 foal.

An independent observer who is here today asks me what is the job of the observer? A Rhetorical question. What are we looking for? My answer to him is we want to see the condition of the horses and also see if they are treated humanely - are they sweating? Are they coming into the trap right away or having to be pushed again and again by the helicopter, how far they ran, are they running into panels and getting injured - we can ascertain none of this at our observation location where the trap is completely hidden by a hill. So why are we here? This is my question.

One group of about 8 came in and a sorrel stallion escaped! hen the helicopter was gone for a while. Then we saw three different groups running a long way away up a ridge. The helicopter came up over the hill in a different place with a group of about 12. We got a glimpse of faces before they were driven into the trap. Then the helicopter went back to get three horses, we saw manes and ears. Elk hunters reported an abandoned
foal so a wrangler went out trailering his horse to see and bring in. The three groups are still to the southwest of us. Just heard the hunters said the foal was really young and they petted it but the helicopter pilot did not see it but the wrangler is also looking for it. We hear that the whole crew
is now looking for the foal including BLM Lead Jay D’Ewart. As we head down the hill to our cars, we see the two Cattoor Judas horses running loose, and then someone leading a palomino. Not sure if this was an escape attempt or they were using their horses to get the foal, we were too
far away.

We go to the temporary holding, no injuries or deaths today. We do not know the end of the story about the foal. We have been out for 12 hours, an abnormally long day, made very frustrating by the lack of meaningful observation. I call us the “unobservers.”

Photos by Kimerlee Curyl who is also onsite for AWHC.

October 15, 2021: 29 wild horses were captured today and there were two deaths. One horse with a broken leg and onee horse with a club foot were euthanized.

AWHC observer and wild horse photographer, Kimerlee Curyl arrived at the observation site around 7:30 am and temperature remained about 21 degrees the entire time they were there with fairly rough winds. Here’s her report from the field:

Myself, Erik Molvar, from Western Watersheds Project and photographer Darlene Smith from Utah were present for observation and we were placed 1.5 miles from the trap site.  Sadly, the visibility was poor at best. The stated reason is due to private land amongst the public lands.  Looking up the exact location on a WY map and as always, it seems there easily could have been a better vantage point.

The runs:

  • There were three successful runs today, estimated numbers of horses were 11 in the first run, 13 in the second run and about 16 in the last run, 8 of which broke away from the helicopter and made a daring escape.  

The final run of the day was a long one.  At one point sitting in vehicles my rear view mirror caught my eye and the most stunning horse appeared.  This  lone chestnut stallion looked down at us for a good while then started a strong trot even closer before turning on his heels and running away.   I believe he is still free. He was a sign for all today, a symbol of independent resilience appearing out of nowhere and leaving with that same spirit and fire intact. 

The last run of the day was another out of the blue moment.  It was just too cold to be outside between runs, the helicopter had been out quite a while.  I happened to glance over the back of Darlene’s truck and silhouettes of wild horses caught my eye on the ridge.  If this was a normal “day in the wild '' the tears of joy would have abounded, instead, sadness as the horses spilled down the hillside quite close to us, being chased by the relentless helicopter.  I counted approximately 16 beautiful wild horses as they raced far, and not near the trap site. When they came into our view again about 2.5 miles away it had been 33 minutes between some shots I had taken.  So we thought to record that timeline in total, not knowing how long they had been run prior to our first view of them we recorded over 45 minutes of being chased in 21 degree weather.

We were allowed to visit the trap site after the horses left of course and learned one horse had been euthanized due to sustaining an injury while being unloaded at temporary holding.  Because of this “incident” death, we were told we needed to wait up to 4 hours to gain any access to the temporary holding pens.  


The Lone stallion

October 14, 2021: Operations were resumed today and 26 wild hoses were captured.

October 13, 2021: No operation was conducted today. The horses experienced a small reprieve.

October 12, 2021: No operation was conducted today. The horses experienced a small reprieve.

October 11, 2021: Today the BLM captured 76 horses (45 mares, 21 foals, 10 stallions). 

To date, 44 horses (74 mares, 37 foals, 33 stallions) have lost their freedom in the largest wild horse roundup in BLM history. 

111 horses (71 mares, 20 foals, 20 stallions) have been shipped to the Rock Springs or Wheatland Wild Horse Corrals.

Photo by Lynn Hanson

photo by scott wilson Photo by Scott Wilson​

There is currently a winter storm warning in Rock Springs and in Bitter Creek, WY, the actual location of the observation/ trap site in the Great Divide Basin. Wind at 50+ mph and snow all day accumulation 1-3 inches.

October 10, 2021: Today AWHC had two observers on-site, Scott Wilson of Wilson Axpe Photographer and Lynn Hanson of Wild Horses Wild Places. We were located about 1.5 miles from the trap site. The BLM claims the private landowners refused viewing access and the public parcel closer to the trap site was "inaccessible." 

Two runs were completed before the operations were pauses because of wind. In the first run, a bay escaped just before the jute but stayed hanging around outside of the pen looking at his herd mates. On the second run, the lead stallion turned his band around no less than 4 times inside the jute in repeated attempts to escape the final run before they were eventually driven into the trap. 

Operations ended up being suspended because of the wind. 

October 9, 2021: The helicopters did not fly today due to high winds. Zero wild horses were captured. 

October 8, 2021: 34 wild horses were captured and there were no injuries or deaths reported.

AWHC's representative Lynn Hanson, was the only observer on-site today on the second day of the enormous Checkerboard wild horse roundup. The operation took place in the same areas as the day before located in the Great Divide Basin HMA. It was a long day which resulted in 34 wild horses losing their freedom. Unfortunately, the band of horses we called "Defiant 5" were captured today. 

October 7, 2021: 9 wild horses were captured and there were no injuries or deaths reported.

Today was the first day of the largest wild horse roundup in Program history. Our field representative, Lynn Hanson of Wild Horses Wild Places was 1 of 8 observes on site. The weather was a mixture of clouds, rain, and fog. At the location, the observation point was almost a mile away, as usual, with the trap site completely obscured by a ridge. The length of jute fencing to the trap was short, so what our field representative did see as far as any horses running to the trap was brief.

The runs:

  • A small family of 3 was run in by the Judas horse (a trained domestic horse that leads the mustangs into the trap) but as you will see in the short video, they split away from the Judas horse and climbed a hill.

  • The helicopter went back out to find them and unfortunately did succeed at bringing them in.

  • Another impressive band of five ... who our field representative called the Defiant 5, were chased up and down rocky hills and terrain for about an hour. The helicopters made numerous attempts to drive them in but every time they got near the trap site the horses brilliantly split up and ran in different directions. This happened over and over. 

  • Finally, the contractor gave up and they called it a day.

Our field representative went to see the gorgeous black stallion with the extremely long mane, and his family, along with the family of three at the temporary holding pens which were set up right off interstate 80. From our representative: 

All I kept thinking was not more than an hour ago these horses were enjoying their lives in the most beautiful landscape you have ever seen. And just like that, their lives changed drastically. This beautiful family got split up from one another, separated in small iron pens, crying out to each other amidst the roaring engine noise of the freeway.