BLM nets 18 wild horses from Piceance herd ahead of helicopter roundup

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Horses graze in the Piceance-East Douglas Heard Management Area west of Meeker in May 2022. The Bureau of Land Management will start phase two of gather operations on July 15. Bureau of Land Management/Courtesy

In the first three weeks of Colorado’s latest wild horse roundup, the Bureau of Land Management has gathered 18 horses from the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area west of Meeker using a bait-and-trap method.

The agency estimates there are as many as 1,385 wild horses in and around the herd management area, which is well above the BLM’s appropriate management level of 135 to 235 horses.

“That’s a really slow process,” said Chris Maestas, a BLM public affairs specialist based in Colorado’s northwest district, of the bait-and-trap method.

The second phase of the roundup will utilize helicopters — like last year’s record-setting Sand Wash Basin gather — and is set to start July 15.

The helicopter roundup could take about a month, Maestas said, though a more detailed timeline won’t be known until the contractor is hired. The goal is to get as close to the BLM’s desired management level as possible, but the contract will also identify a “not to exceed timeline.”

“There might be some flexibility to go a little longer,” Maestas said. “We’ll have more details as that contract gets facilitated.”

If horses are gathered down to the BLM’s management level for the Piceance East Douglas area, as many as 1,250 horses could be removed from the range. That would amount to about two-thirds of all wild horses left in Colorado, according to March 2022 population estimates, and it would surpass the 632 horses removed from the Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County last year as the largest wild horse roundup in state history.

Started June 16, the first phase of the gather has used a method of baiting wild horses with water or hay and trapping them in a remote-operated corral. It has netted a fraction of the total horses the BLM is hoping for, but Maestas said 18 horses was relatively successful for this method.

The same tactic was applied in the Sand Wash Basin in January 2021 with 10 horses corralled in four days. 

The BLM set up the corrals on June 16 but didn’t gather any horses until June 27, with the intention of getting the horses acclimated to the traps first. Four horses were gathered on June 28 and 14 more on June 29. Efforts on June 30 didn’t yield any horses, and operations were not conducted from July 1-6.

Of the 18 gathered, eight are stallions, seven are mares and three are foals. All have been taken to BLM-contracted corrals in Axtell, Utah, where the horses will be processed for the agency’s adoption program.

“The Axtell off-range corrals are privately owned, have been under contract since 2015, and (Axtell) is a time-tested proven partner providing exceptional humane care and treatment of the animals in their charge,” said Gus Warr, BLM Utah’s Wild Horse and Burro Program lead, in a statement.

Horses are being brought to the Utah corrals, in part, because the BLM’s Cañon City holding facility has been under quarantine following an outbreak of equine flu that killed 145 horses from the West Douglas Herd Area this spring. The facility is also nearing its 2,600-horse capacity.

A BLM probe found vaccinations for newly gathered horses were not being done in a timely manner at the Cañon City facility. A lack of vaccinations hasn’t been proven as the cause of the outbreak, but BLM officials say there will be a stronger effort to ensure horses gathered in Piceance are properly vaccinated.

The herd management area has seen significant rain in recent weeks, which the BLM says has washed out some roads. In some areas, there was a mudflow created by flash flooding, but Maestas said he doesn’t expect it to push back the gather.

“The range is dry and parches, and (rain) doesn’t soak in. It just runs off and creates a little mini mudslide,” Masteas said. “We’re prepped and manned to start (helicopter operations on July 15).”