DENVER — Hundreds of wild mustangs living in the Sand Wash Basin will be corralled using helicopters despite protests, calls from wildlife advocates and a letter from Gov. Jared Polis.
On Wednesday, the Bureau of Land Management will begin to gather up to 80% of the horse population from the Sand Wash Basin. There are currently more than 850 wild horses living on the land, and BLM plans to reduce it down to about 160 over the coming weeks.
“Over 20 years of data has shown there are not enough groceries in the kitchen for all of the other animals that rely on the basin,” BLM Little Snake Field Office Manager Bruce Sillitoe said. "BLM has seen emergency situations with the food and the rangeland resources out there. We cannot let these animals move forward in the winter with this number. Many, many will die.”
The government agency plans to use helicopters to help capture horses.
“We are very careful not to get too close to those animals, there is no need to run then, those animals will walk right into the trap,” Silliteo said.
Scott Wilson, a wildlife photographer, has spent hours taking pictures of the stallions.
“They are absolutely fantastic. To see a mustang running wild, that kind of swagger, I mean, really, it’s that epitome of America,” Wilson said.
He visited Sand Wash Basin about a month ago and recalled healthy-looking mustangs.
“The ponds in Sand Wash Basin are full, the horses are healthy, they look great,” Wilson said. “I’ve seen so many photos recently of horse’s shoulder deep in ponds.”
He harshly criticized BLM for its corralling tactic.
“My first reaction is horror. I mean, the notion of running a helicopter against a wild horse and her foal is just appalling," Wilson said.
On Tuesday, protesters gathered at the State Capitol to rally against the roundup plan. They shared similar concerns Wilson voiced.
“This helicopter round up will kill and injure horses, and these are America's wild horses,” said Teri Hall, an advocate for MARR-PLAN for Wild Horses.
Hall helped organize the peaceful protest at the capitol for the organization. The group wants to reduce the cattle population to increase the number of wild horses on the land. They want to put an end to the horse roundups, ground all helicopters and use contraception to keep the horse population under control.
Hall also questioned the data cited by BLM.
“It’s not an emergency. Let's find a humane way if you’ve got to do it,” Hall said.
Gov. Jared Polis echoed a similar message in a letter to the deputy director of BLM. He expressed concerns about the historic scale of the roundup during a condensed time period. Polis said he wanted to work with BLM to come up with more humane outcomes for herd management. He also urged the organization to temporarily freeze the removal of horses.
“We have 20 years of data, we’ve watched these animals, we’ve watched the rangelands, we are managing for healthy horses and healthy rangelands,” Silliteo said.
The horses removed will be either auctioned off or made available for adoption.
“I don’t want to shun the BLM. We want to work together and talk about proportionate and humane ways to manage these horses,” Wilson said. “We recognize they have a job to do.”
BLM says they are working with an advocacy group to help implement a fertility control program to help keep the horse population under control and eventually eliminate roundups.
“Please know that we care about these animals, too," Silliteo said. "They are a beautiful heritage of our American West.”