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Advocates for wild horses dispute BLM’s reasoning for roundup in northwestern Colorado

Wild horses feed in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 5. The Bureau of Land Management began gathering horses from this area and sending hundreds to a long-term boarding facility July 15.
Scott Wilson
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Wild horses feed in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 5. The Bureau of Land Management began gathering horses from this area and sending hundreds to a long-term boarding facility July 15.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aqui.

On July 15, the Bureau of Land Management started rounding up wild horses on land between Rangely and Meeker in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area, or PEDHMA.

The ongoing roundup, or what the BLM calls a "gather," was originally set for September, but BLM officials announced in June they were moving the event up two months.

The BLM cited the poor condition of the wild horses, and the high numbers of horses roaming in the 190,000-acre PEDHMA.

To improve these conditions, the federal agency is seeking to remove 1,050 wild horses from the area.

But wild horse advocates say the horses are not in poor condition, and that cattle are causing more problems on the range than the horses.

Earlier this month, a small group of scientists and wild-horse advocates flew with the nonprofit EcoFlight over the rugged landscape southeast of Rangely.

EcoFlight takes policymakers, journalists and advocates to the sky to view problems from a broader perspective.

Bruce Gordon circles a small plane around downtown Aspen waiting to land at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on July 1. Gordon is the founder of EcoFlight and takes scientists, journalists, students, politicians, and advocates into the air to get a different perspective on environmental issues in the Mountain West.
Halle Zander
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Aspen Public Radio
Bruce Gordon circles a small plane around downtown Aspen waiting to land at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on July 1. Gordon is the founder of EcoFlight and takes scientists, journalists, students, politicians, and advocates into the air to get a different perspective on environmental issues in the Mountain West.

In this case, the passengers wanted to get a look at the wild horses before the BLM began using helicopters and horseback riders to drive and trap them.

Delia Malone was on the flight. She’s an ecologist and serves on the board of the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter.

She has been evaluating habitats and endangered species on the Western Slope for decades.

“I have something of a rather intimate knowledge of what's impacting the landscape and what's impacting the health of the land,” Malone said.

And she feels wild horses are part of the Western identity.

“The wild horses exemplify the West. They are the spirit of the landscape,” Malone said. “And the BLM is set on destroying that spirit.”

Delia Malone speaks with other advocates during a flight with EcoFlight over the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 1, 2022. The flight helped Malone survey the landscape before she conducted her ground-level analysis on July 3 and July 5, 2022.
Halle Zander
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Aspen Public Radio
Delia Malone speaks with other advocates during a flight with EcoFlight over the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 1, 2022. The flight helped Malone survey the landscape before she conducted her ground-level analysis on July 3 and July 5, 2022.

The BLM estimates that nearly 1,400 horses roam in this herd-management area.

But the agency determined in a 2021 environmental assessment that there should be only 135 to 235 horses in the area to maintain an ecological balance.

That assessment gives them the authority to conduct this gather operation.

However, Malone disputes whether the BLM’s maximum limit of 235 horses in this herd-management area is appropriate and questions the need to remove wild horses from the land.

“In my opinion, as an ecologist, the impact that wild horses have on the landscape is minimal,” Malone said.

A lowland area in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management area along Yellow Creek is full of healthy foliage on July 3, 2022. Ecologist Delia Malone attributes this healthy landscape to low livestock grazing pressure in the area.
Delia Malone
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A lowland area in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management area along Yellow Creek is full of healthy foliage on July 3, 2022. Ecologist Delia Malone attributes this healthy landscape to low livestock grazing pressure in the area.

Erik Molvar was on the EcoFlight plane with Malone.

He’s a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project, which works to protect Western lands from what it calls “the destructive effects of livestock grazing.”

After the flight over the management area, Molvar said horses are not the problem there.

“The livestock industry commonly scapegoats wild horses for rangeland degradation that's actually caused by cattle and sheep,” Molvar said. “And it's not just the livestock industry. It’s the Bureau of Land Management.”

Chris Maestas is a spokesperson for BLM’s Northwest Colorado District.

He didn’t speak to the claim about the BLM scapegoating wild horses, but he pointed out that the BLM has to balance the wild-horse population in the PEDHMA with other uses, including oil and gas wells.

“You have resource development,” Maestas said. “You have recreation. You have other wildlife animals, and so you have all these decisions to take into account and come up with the best decisions for the land as well as the management.”

his graphic provided by Laurine Lassalle shows the locations of oil and gas wells in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area. Data was provided by the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Laurine Lassalle
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Aspen Journalism
his graphic provided by Laurine Lassalle shows the locations of oil and gas wells in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area. Data was provided by the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

But Molvar, who is with Western Watersheds Project, says cattle are harder on the environment than wild horses are.

“The cattle, in particular, concentrate along the lush bottomlands and near water,” Molvar said. “They have a disproportionate impact, a disproportionate forage removal right along the streams, right along the valley bottoms.”

Molvar says horses are similar to elk and bison in their grazing.

“They're not concentrating in those riparian areas,” Molvar said. “They're spreading their impacts across a variety of habitats. They're wide ranging. They use the country. They don't avoid steep country the way cattle do.”

Regardless, the BLM’s environmental assessment says that “adjusting livestock use” in the herd-management area was outside the “scope of this analysis.”

Malone traveled to the herd-management area earlier this month and walked in areas where horses tend to congregate.

She wrote a report that says most of the lowland areas near water sources are severely damaged because of cattle and that upland habitats provide enough forage to support the wild horses.

“And in my ecological perspective, the horses are not the problem,” Malone said. “It's the cattle and the sheep that are severely damaging the landscape.”

Malone’s report also disputes other claims from the BLM.

BLM assessments of the horses this past spring showed that they ranged from “very thin” to “moderately fleshy” on the agency's scoring system. About 90% of horses ranked somewhere in between.

This slide from a public meeting with the BLM on June 15, 2022 shows the assessments of horses in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area with examples of horses that fall into some of the categories.
Bureau of Land Management Northwest District
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This slide from a public meeting with the BLM on June 15, 2022 shows the assessments of horses in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area with examples of horses that fall into some of the categories.

But Malone said that the wild horses she saw and photographed, along with photographer Scott Wilson, were “vigorous and reproductively successful.”

Photos of the horses from the BLM and Malone paint very different pictures of the health of the herd.

(Left) A wild horse and foal eat grass near Barcus Creek in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on April 2, 2022. The adult horse has visible hip bones and ribs. (Right) Wild horse kicks up dirt in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 5, 2022. The horse has muscular shoulders, hips and a round belly. (Credit: Scott Wilson)
Left, Bureau of Land Management, Right, Scott Wilson
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(Left) A wild horse and foal eat grass near Barcus Creek in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on April 2, 2022. The adult horse has visible hip bones and ribs. (Right) Wild horse kicks up dirt in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 5, 2022. The horse has muscular shoulders, hips and a round belly. (Credit: Scott Wilson)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has also decided to weigh in.

In May and July, Polis wrote letters asking the BLM to pause drive-traps and to consider the challenges that a midsummer gather could cause.

The BLM, however, is a federal agency, so Polis can only make requests and suggestions.

The BLM decided to move forward with the drive-trapping July 15.

“We appreciate the governor's involvement, said Maestas, the BLM spokesperson. “The BLM leadership is in frequent communication with the governor's office on ways to improve wildlife management.”

The reasons for this gather operation remain disputed.

Molvar says when the facts on the ground are contested, it’s difficult to have informed debates.

“There should be broad agreement that everybody can agree that these horses are in bad condition or the range is in bad condition or that the range condition problems are due to wild horses or they're due to cattle,” Molvar said. “But there it seems like it's really difficult to drive that kind of consensus.”

Although the rangeland conditions and the health of the wild horses are disputed, their fate has already been determined.

Gather operations are ongoing. According to the BLM's updates online, 430 wild horses were gathered as of Thursday morning.

Three-hundred forty-six wild horses have been shipped to a holding facility in Axtell, Utah. And the rest are in a holding pen.

Horses stand in a holding pen on the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 18. The Bureau of Land Management uses helicopters to drive wild horses into these holding pens. This photo appeared on the American Wild Horse Campaign's website where the organization is sharing updates from each day of the gather operations.
Scott Wilson
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WilsonAXPE
Horses stand in a holding pen on the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 18. The Bureau of Land Management uses helicopters to drive wild horses into these holding pens. This photo appeared on the American Wild Horse Campaign's website where the organization is sharing updates from each day of the gather operations.

Some will be sold or adopted. Others will be boarded long term, and some will be sterilized and released back onto the range.

The BLM says that rates of adoption and sales of wild horses have historically not kept up with the growth of their populations, so many of these horses will spend the rest of their lives in confined grazing areas.

Copyright 2022 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio .

Halle Zander
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