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Federal land managers are planning Colorado’s next wild horse roundup, ignoring pleas to stop using a helicopter

The BLM’s management plan for the Little Book Cliffs near Palisade calls for removing about 100 horses with a helicopter roundup
Wild horses in the designated Spring Creek Basin management area are protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

The latest effort to decrease the wild horse population in Colorado will target the layered beige-and-purple plateaus of Little Book Cliffs, rangeland near Palisade that is home to about 200 mustangs.

The Bureau of Land Management announced Wednesday that it is seeking feedback on a 10-year management plan that calls for removing 85-110 wild horses by helicopter roundup, administering birth control and following up with bait-and-trap operations to keep the population within the federal agency’s desired limits.

The 36,000 acres of rangeland, dotted with bunchgrass and sagebrush and with limited water, can support a maximum of 90-150 horses, according to the BLM.

Federal land managers removed about 50,000 wild horses and burros across the West from 2020 to 2023, about twice as many as in the prior four years. Colorado, which has four mustang herd management areas on about 400,000 acres, should have no more than 827 animals, the BLM says. The current count is 1,322.

The initial step in the plan calls for rounding up horses in Little Book Cliffs by low-flying helicopter, as well as roping by wranglers on horseback if necessary.

The BLM plans to use birth control, including fertility vaccines and equine IUDs, to control the population, and would conduct trap operations to keep herd numbers in check. Trap operations typically involve using water and hay to lure horses into corrals, which are then snapped shut by remote control.

The goal is to have a horse herd population that grows only 2% to 5% per year, keeping the population between 90 and 115 horses, the BLM said. Horses that are 20 years old or older and not physically fit enough to survive the roundup would remain on the range, the plan says.

The plan also includes collecting hair follicle samples from at least 30 horses with a goal of performing genetic testing on horses from each of the areas within the Little Book Cliffs – North Soda, Low Gap, Round Mountain and Monument Rocks. They said they might move some mustangs to other parts of the Little Book Cliffs for the purpose of “genetic viability” or transfer horses from another herd management area.

They also hope to return an equal number of mares and stallions back to the range, according to the proposal. Wild horses live in bands, or families, typically made up of one stallion and a handful of mares and their foals.

Horses removed from Little Book Cliffs would spend about a week in pens in nearby De Beque, then would be shipped to a BLM holding facility. The federal agency keeps mustangs on state prison grounds in Cañon City until they are ready for adoption or long-term pasture.

“Our top priority is to manage for healthy horses on healthy rangelands,” Greg Larson, the BLM’s Upper Colorado River district manager, said in a news release.

Mustang advocates, however, were upset that the federal agency is planning another helicopter roundup. Recent helicopter roundups included the West Douglas rangeland in 2023, East Douglas in 2022 and Sand Wash Basin in 2021.

“We are disappointed in the Bureau of Land Management’s continual reliance on cruel helicopter roundups, especially in areas like Little Book Cliffs,” Scott Wilson, a spokesman for American Wild Horse Conservation, said in an email to The Colorado Sun.

The Little Book Cliffs herd has been managed by “humane fertility control” for the past six years, Wilson said. He suggested that instead of another helicopter roundup, the BLM should prioritize fertility control “as a new model of wild horse conservation that is consistent with the wishes of the public and political leadership in Colorado.”

Gov. Jared Polis called on the BLM to stop a helicopter roundup of mustangs on the Piceance-East Douglas rangeland outside Meeker in 2022, but the federal agency ignored the request.

The BLM counters that administering the fertility vaccine is challenging and, while it’s a useful tool in population control, it’s not an alternative to roundups. The agency is accepting public comment on its management plan until June 15.

Since 1971, the agency has removed nearly 4,400 wild horses and burros from public land in Colorado.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 73,520 federally protected wild horses and burros on public lands. That’s 9,363 fewer animals than last year, according to the latest BLM population report. This was the third year since 2020 that the population of wild horses and burros declined, due mainly to roundups.

The agency plans to remove about 20,000 mustangs and burros across the West this year. The past few years of intense population control come after a boom that saw the number of wild horses and burros climb to more than 95,000 in 2020, up from 28,500 in 2007.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.