Wild horse roundup draws criticism from animal rights activists

KUNC | By Brittany Cronin

Wild horses photographed in 2013 in the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Herd Management Area in Wyoming.

The Bureau of Land Management is rounding up hundreds of wild horses in the northwestern part of the state this summer in what is projected to be the largest horse roundup in state history.

There are more wild horses in the region than the land can sustain, according to the bureau, but critics are concerned about the animals’ health during the roundup.

The roundup of the Piceance East Douglas herd began in June with bait traps used to lure the animals into corrals, but it was slow going at first. The bureau gathered 18 horses over the course of several weeks.

In order to gather the remaining horses, the bureau changed its tactics — in July, it introduced horseback riders and helicopters. As of this week, 780 wild horses have been gathered.

While helicopters have been far more effective at gathering the animals, they’re also the main source of discontent for critics, who find the use of helicopters inhumane.

“The helicopter is basically terrorizing these populations of animals across a chase of miles and miles,” said Scott Wilson, Colorado spokesperson for the American Wild Horse Campaign.

Wilson helped produce the American Wild Horse Campaign’s new video objecting to the roundup. The 30-second ad shows brown spotted horses being herded by low-flying helicopters, whirling up dust in their wake.

The purpose of the video is to raise awareness, according to Wilson.

“I’m constantly surprised by how few Coloradans are even aware that wild horses exist in Colorado,” he said.

Wilson also said the horses are being scapegoated and that livestock is to blame for overgrazing. He wants to see fewer horses rounded up and roundups done without the use of helicopters.

Steven Hall, the BLM’s Colorado Director of Communications, said the bureau takes horse welfare seriously and that the role of the bureau is to manage the wild horse population in harmony with the health of the environment and other land uses.

The BLM has been charged with managing the wild horse population since the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

Contrary to what their name might imply, Hall said wild horses are a domesticated species, and as such, they don’t have many natural predators in the ecosystem. “Certainly not enough predators to control population growth,” he added.

He said the horse gathers are therefore necessary to prevent mass starvation.

BLM researchers found evidence of malnutrition in wild horses coming out of the winter and moved the gather, initially scheduled for September, to earlier in the summer.

Hall also said that the mortality and serious injury rates are roughly the same for helicopter and bait trap gathers, citing a 10-year review of BLM data from the University of Wyoming.

The BLM is transporting the Piceance East-Douglas horses to a holding facility in Utah after nearly 150 horses died in captivity from a flu outbreak in Cañon City this spring. Once they arrive at the new facility, the animals will be open to adoption by the public.