BLM gather moves forward despite Polis and Reis’ attempts to freeze

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appealed to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, asking her to pause the emergency gather of 780 wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin. Despite his request to leave the horses in the drought-stricken area in northwestern Colorado for six months, the Bureau of Land Management gather began as scheduled on Sept. 1.

In Gov. Polis’ two-page letter that also included the signature of First Gentleman Marlon Reis, Polis said he believes the state “can work more collaboratively with the BLM to effectuate more scientific and humane outcomes to herd management.” He went on to urge Sec. Haaland to “freeze any planned round-ups, with the hope that a better outcome and better communication with stakeholders can be achieved, and potential opportunities for state engagement can be more fully explored.”

Polis encouraged Sec. Haaland to collaborate with “advocates” and to recognize the non-profit community as a partner in adoptions, care, and oversight. He also said he has spoken to expert’s who disagree with the BLM’s assessment of the drought-stricken area, proposing a “more solid study into the health of the herd, and the status of the ecosystem in the management area.”

Overgrazing by wild horses during exceptional drought conditions led, in part, to the gather of wild horses on the Sand Wash Basin beginning Sept. 1.


According to the BLM, the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area is about 158,000 acres — about 155,000 acres of public land, 2,000 acres of private land, and 840 acres of state land. There are an estimated 896 wild horses in and around the Sand Wash Basin HMA — approximately 746 wild horses within the HMA and 150 excess wild horses outside the HMA. The Appropriate Management Level for the HMA is between 163 and 362 wild horses. The BLM plans to gather approximately 783 excess wild horses, removing approximately 733 wild horses for future adoption or sale, and returning approximately 50 wild horses back onto the HMA. Approximately 25 mares will receive fertility control before being returned to the HMA. The gather is expected to last approximately 14-25 days.

Wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin area will be gathered by the hundreds in the coming weeks by the Bureau of Land Management.
Courtesy BLM

Wild horse advocates, including the first gentleman, have voiced their opposition to the gather. Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter wildlife chair Delia Malone in a letter claimed that it is livestock grazing that has resulted in range damage, rather than horses. Malone asked the BLM to reduce or eliminate livestock grazing, removing livestock entirely for up to 10 years at which time the range could be reevaluated and the AML for horses determined after “natural population controls are reestablished.”

Chris Maestas, a spokesperson for the BLM, said the extreme drought conditions will have long-term impact on the range.

“This is an area that can accommodate 362 wild horses, that’s on the upper end and that’s when things are good,” Maestas said. “In northwest Colorado with this extreme drought we’ve had for some time, there has been a great deal of stress on the range. We have had some moisture lately but for folks who are familiar with the arid West, it takes a while for lands to recover from drought.”

Colorado's August U.S. Drought Monitor. The Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County is in D4- Exceptional Drought.

Recent rains and decreased wildfire activity, he said, does not signal recovery, especially in areas that have been overgrazed by the excess horses.

“With close to 1,000 head of horses in an area that can sustain just under 400 and we’re in an extreme drought, we see the ripple effect one might imagine if one is familiar with livestock and public lands,” he said. “Most of the (domestic livestock) grazing has stopped completely in this area because there is no forage available because it’s being eaten by the horses.”

Livestock producers in the area with grazing permits have voluntarily reduced grazing activity by up to 86%.

The greater sage grouse populations in northwest Colorado, he said, increased by 10% last year. However, sage grouse populations in the Sand Wash Basin of northwest Colorado, decreased by 26% in the same period. Maestas said the decrease of the population of the indicator species is a direct result of overgrazing by wild horses.

Maestas said he appreciates the interest of the governor and first gentleman have in the wild horses and said the BLM looks forward to a creative solution to managing healthy horses on healthy range.


Both the Colorado First Conservation District and the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts sent letters to the BLM expressing their support of the agency “staying the course” to remove excess horses to reduce the impacts on the rangeland and other species, despite a push from the “vocal minority.”

Both conservation districts cited statistics from the U.S. Drought Monitor that indicates 100% of Moffat County is experiencing D3- Extreme Drought and 77% of the county is in D4- Exceptional Drought.

The letter from White River and Douglas Creek Conservation District presidents Marc Etchart and Bill Hume respectively, included photos taken Aug. 30 in Rio Blanco County where the Piceance East-Douglas HMA is overpopulated. According to the letter, the pictures illustrate the devastation caused by overpopulation of horses.

“This is not the ‘thriving ecological balance’ that the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act calls for within an HMA,” Etchart and Hume wrote. “We are confident there are similar impacts to the range in the Sand Wash HMA because the numbers of horses have been well above AML for many years. If horse numbers were maintained within the AML, we don’t believe these devastating impacts would occur.”

A letter from the Colorado First Conservation District Board of Supervisors Conservation districts said districts have worked “throughout the decades to improve range management in their communities and are devoted to conserving natural resources on all landscapes across our nation through proper stewardship of the land.”

“Wild horse and burro populations on public lands must be properly managed to prevent further deterioration of rangeland resources,” the board wrote. “Without swift intervention and proper management, the future health and vitality of the western rangeland is in jeopardy.”

Overpopulation on HMAs, the district said, results in overgrazing of the rangelands, where the consumption of vegetation can reduce biodiversity of plant species leaving the range vulnerable to invasive species; soil compaction where the repeated impact of hooves compact the soil over time; compacted soil limits water infiltration, increases runoff and erosion, inhibits root and plant growth, and restricts nutrient cycling by soil microbes; degraded wildlife habitat, leading to threats to native and endangered species, with the Greater Sage Grouse habitat being of particular concern.

Once gathered, horses will be made available for adoption through the BLM’s Canon City facility. On the first day of the gather, 65 animals were gathered with 22 stallions, 32 mares and 11 foals.

According to the BLM, additional gather operations may take place in areas outside the HMA on public, state, and/or private lands where wild horses have moved in search of food and water. This management action is intended to prevent starvation and dehydration of wild horses due to exceptional drought that has further limited forage production and water resources.


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