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The Bureau of Land Management is proposing rounding up 1,050 wild horses in Rio Blanco County this year, removing 750 of them from the range and administering fertility control to another 200.

The project, which would be one of the largest ever by the BLM in the state, is included in the BLM proposed wild horse and burro gather and fertility control schedule for the 2022 federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. It would take place in the Piceance-East Douglas wild horse herd management area east of Colorado Highway 139 and southwest of Meeker.

The operation is scheduled to run from Aug. 28 to Sept. 28 and would entail use of a helicopter to round up the horses.

Nationally, the BLM is proposing gathering 22,795 horses and burros this fiscal year, removing nearly 20,000 of them from the range and treating about 2,300 with fertility controls and releasing them back on the range. The agency said in a news release that it plans to increase its gather and fertility control operations this year “to reduce the risk of starvation, thirst, and habitat destruction as climate change and extreme drought continues to impact the West. The plan follows a year marked by extreme drought and a record number of emergency actions to save wild horses and burros and protect critical habitat on public lands.”

Last year, citing in part limited water sources and deteriorating summer habitat due to a recent wildfire, the BLM gathered 457 wild horses in the West Douglas area west of Highway 139, which it considers inappropriate for horses due to complex terrain and lack of summer range. The gather was by far the largest there in BLM records going back to 1981.

Also last year the BLM gathered about 683 horses from inside the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area west of Craig, in response to ongoing severe drought and lack of forage. It planned to try to adopt out most of them but released 49 back to the herd as part of a fertility control program.

That horse removal project drew considerable public attention, going forward despite concerns raised by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis about the scale of the operation.

Last February, the BLM approved a 10-year plan for the Piceance-East Douglas area that provides for removing excess horses there and using non-permanent fertility-control treatments for reducing the population growth rate of remaining horses.

The BLM says the appropriate management level there is 135-235 horses.

The BLM says that nationally, wild horse and burro numbers on BLM-managed public lands were estimated at more than 86,000 animals as of last March 1, more than three times the appropriate management level but down from an estimate of 95,000 in 2020.

Jennifer Best, an attorney with Friends of Animals, said the BLM is proposing rounding up more horses than ever before, unfortunately including more than 1,000 in Colorado, from the Piceance-East Douglas herd.

She said that in the last few years her group has seen the BLM begin issuing “these 10-year-long plans that essentially give the agency free discretion to remove horses any time they want.”

”We’re very concerned that this eliminates public participation and oversight in how BLM manages the wild horses and is very detrimental to the wild horses and their future in the West,” she said.

Her group has ongoing lawsuits challenging BLM 10-year plans elsewhere, but hasn’t yet determined if it also will legally challenge the Piceance-East Douglas plan.

The BLM sought public comment as it prepared that plan, but Best said it then proceeds with gathers under such plans without soliciting further comment and disclosing the basis of its gather decisions.

Best also contends that BLM gather plans are tied to outdated population targets not supported by science, and said major gather operations result in horses being trampled and killed, all to help make room for commercial uses of public land like livestock grazing and energy development.

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in the agency’s release, “The BLM is committed to the safety of the wild horses and burros entrusted to our care. Our gather efforts, handling standards, and fertility control work are guided by our compassion for these animals and our desire to protect their well-being, as well as the health of our public lands.”

The BLM says that if herds aren’t managed, they typically grow 20% annually, doubling in size every four years. It says its fertility control treatment goal for the year is nearly the double the record of 1,160 treatments of horses and burros, set last year.

Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts, said the district supports the BLM Piceance-East Douglas plan.

“We have been doing some intense range monitoring in that area for the last four years and the range is on a significant decline,” she said.

She said BLM data from last March indicated there were 963 horses in the Piceance-East Douglas area and 97 in a North Piceance herd area that should have no horses, and the agency says there are about 30 still in the West Douglas area after last year’s gather there. Factor in annual population growth, and she said the population in and around Piceance-East Douglas is now approaching 1,500 horses.

Range monitoring the conservation districts have been involved with in the Piceance-East Douglas area showed 100% utilization of range forage at multiple locations in November, long after cows are off the range for the year, Hendrickson said. That much use meant there wasn’t even enough grass and other forage to cut and measure as part of the monitoring project, she said.

”I’ve been saying that this crash is coming, and I’m afraid we’re here,” she said.