Last remaining wild mustangs removed from Colorado herd area
Sep 18, 2023, 4:15 PM | Updated: 4:15 pm
WEST DOUGLAS, Colorado (KCNC) — A portion of northwest Colorado that used to be home to hundreds of wild horses now has none.
The federal Bureau of Land Management has completed its roundup of the last remaining 122 wild horses in the West Douglas Herd Area, located just below Rangely on Colorado’s western slope.
Wild mustangs from the West Douglas Herd Area are taken by trailer to a holding facility in Cañon City following a roundup in early September.
This September, the BLM used a helicopter drive-trap method to round up and remove the mustangs that lived there, saying the area is not suitable for horses, and was designated that way back in the 1970s.
But while the area may not be suitable for horses, CBS News Colorado found it is suitable for thousands of cattle to graze. Some critics feel the BLM is wasting hard-earned tax dollars to subsidize ranching operations.
Wildlife photographer Scott Wilson has spent years following the wild horse debate. As a spokesperson for the American Wild Horse Campaign, he went to the West Douglas roundup this month.
“I think what we’re seeing… is a blunt force approach to conservation, which is costing the taxpayers an absolute fortune,” Wilson said.
Last summer, mustangs in the East Douglas Piceance Herd Management Area just next door to West Douglas were rounded up too.
A helicopter scares the horses, forcing them to run into a trap, where they are then corralled onto a trailer and taken to holding facilities.
The helicopter and trapping work in West Douglas this September cost $187,000 federal tax dollars.
The West Douglas horses will all be taken to a Colorado prison in Cañon City. Public records show the BLM has a more than $4 million contract with the state to pay for the care and keeping of the horses there until they’re adopted out for the next two years.
Last year, an outbreak at the Cañon City holding facility killed 146 mustangs, and all of them were West Douglas horses. The BLM says all of the horses rounded up this year have been vaccinated right away before being sent to holding, something that wasn’t done before.
“West Douglas is very, very rough, there is not a lot of forage, there is not very much water,” explained Steven Hall with the BLM Colorado.
Hall says the West Douglas roundup was necessary.
“It’s just that the public lands out there cannot sustain horses very well,” Hall said. “It’s just not a good place to have horses, and it’s important to remember that wild horses are in competition with wildlife.”
But CBS News Colorado found 11,550 animal units per month of cattle are actively permitted to graze on the West Douglas Herd Area land there while the only 1,344 wild horse animal units per month were there before the roundup took place. That’s eight times more cattle than horses allowed on the herd area land.
CBS News Colorado asked Hall how that land could be suitable for cows, if it isn’t suitable for horses.
“Wild horses are domestic species that live in a wild state. So, there’s no natural predators. There’s no control, no check on their populations. So eventually they will absolutely eat themselves out of house and home on public lands,” Hall said. “There needs to be a coexistence of a variety of uses of public land. That’s the vision that we’ve been given under the Federal Land Policy Management Act.”
CBS News Colorado also found the ranchers who graze their cattle there only pay the feds at most $15,500 a year for all those cows to graze.
“Whether or not you agree, or you think the grazing is an appropriate use of public lands, that’s not really a decision for me to make. The decision has been made by the American public that grazing is an appropriate use of public lands. So that’s what we manage for,” Hall said. “If we don’t gather horses in an area like this, then we will see environmental consequence and environmental impacts.”
Hall says horses will be eating the forage on the land all year round, while cows will only be allowed to graze during targeted times of the year.
Hall also added that wildlife, like the sage grouse and elk and deer, can also suffer if wild horse populations are kept unchecked.
But horse advocates like Wilson feel these helicopter roundups still aren’t necessary, that more birth control should be used instead to manage horse populations.
“We believe there’s a really cheap, cost-effective solution here which is introducing fertility control to a far greater degree,” Wison said.
Hall says fertility control will be used more prevalently for other herds in Colorado, now that they’ve done sufficient helicopter roundups.
“The problem is, you get to a point where the population has grown so much, the contraception is not going to be very effective other than maintaining that massive population. So, imagine trying to administer contraception to 100 to 200 horses, which is the general range, where we like to see our wild horse herds. That’s doable,” Hall explained. “Piecance Douglas, a few years ago was over a thousand horses. That’s going be very difficult to track and to administer contraception to 500 plus mares each season, that’s going to be a real challenge.”
A Colorado bill passed this year will require more cooperation between the BLM, the state, and advocates like Wilson to find solutions to the wild horse debate on which everyone can agree. Wilson hopes this month’s roundup in West Douglas will be the last in Colorado for quite a while.
“I have a whole lot of hope of what’s possible here,” Wilson said.
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