Beckie Diehl paused this week during a walk across a field close to the rim of the Book Cliffs overlooking Grand Junction and kicked a foot toward a lone, sprouting tuft of grass.

"There is virtually no grass out here," she said, the small green growth only accentuating the brown, barren conditions surrounding it.

Right now, the field hardly looks like a place to meet the needs of hungry wild horses. But it obviously is a traditional gathering place for them, as evidenced by the towering "stud piles" of manure deposited by competing stallions marking territory and the munched-down condition of the grazing forage, a condition worsened by ongoing drought.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it," she said of the state of the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range.

Diehl, who is involved with the Friends of the Mustangs volunteer group that works on behalf of the local wild horse herd, gets the rationale behind the Bureau of Land Management's efforts that are underway to trap and remove up to 60 of the roughly 190 animals in the herd. The BLM wants to address the overgrazing that has occurred on the range.

While the animals' conditions are considered healthy now, Diehl said she expects that even if 60 are removed in the "gather" operation that is getting underway, she thinks that some of those that remain will be coming out of the upcoming winter looking pretty thin. She also foresees the possibility of the Friends of the Mustangs group leading a fundraising or grant-writing effort to do some reseeding to help revive range conditions.

The pressure the horses are currently putting on their habitat is made evident as travelers leave it and cross into a livestock grazing area that's still replete with grass.

"You can see the difference in the range," said Friends of the Mustang member Peggy Elsmore, who like Diehl is a Grand Junction resident, and like Diehl joined the Friends group in 1989.

The group tracks the herd and its individual members, even giving names to them all, and to see any of them have to be removed is heartbreaking.

"It's really sad to see your favorite ones go," Elsmore said.

But she said she's come to see that horses have to be managed like any wild animal on the landscape, noting that the rangeland of the Little Book Cliffs herd also is relied upon by deer, elk and a host of other wildlife.

The Friends group long has been an active participant in that management effort, in part through its participation in a fertility-control darting program that temporarily blocks mares from becoming pregnant. That program has reduced, but not eliminated, the need for the BLM to round up and remove horses from the herd from time to time.

The group also provides assistance to the BLM when gathers occur, perhaps most crucially by sharing its meticulously gathered information on things such as each horse's age and genetics. That's information the agency considers in deciding which captured horses should be removed, and which should be left on the range.

"They have great knowledge and records of the horses up here," said Jim Dollerschell, rangeland management specialist for the BLM.

He said the bottom line is there are simply too many horses on the range, where the agency has determined that an appropriate management level is no more than 150 animals.

"We have to get the number down and that's going to be good for the entire herd," he said.

Wild-horse roundups are a touchy subject in the West, sometimes subject to lawsuits by advocacy groups. Some groups question the need for the gathers and the means in which horses are removed, and lament the fact that tens of thousands of rounded-up horses are in government holding facilities due to how many have been removed from the range and the difficulties in finding enough people willing to adopt horses.

Gathers involving the Little Book Cliffs herd have tended to be less controversial. While the agency received some comments from advocacy groups worried about potential impacts to the herd from reducing their numbers due to the planned gather, no formal appeals were filed. Dollerschell said he thinks one of the reasons there is less contention in the case of Little Book Cliffs gathers is because of the longtime partnership the BLM has had with the Friends of the Mustangs in managing the herd.

The BLM plans to start removing horses on Sept. 4 or later, but already has begun preparing the removal operation, which involves using water and grass hay as bait. Agency officials think the drought conditions that have made both natural forage and water sources harder to find should make it easier to get horses to take the bait, as it were. It already has been setting out water and hay at 10 sites where it is hoping to eventually corral animals, and is using game cameras to track visitation. Bob Price, another BLM range specialist, said horses sometimes have been showing up within 20 minutes after people in trucks deliver the water and hay, which only helps confirm that current range conditions warrant removing some animals.

BLM officials have been seeing what sites are attracting horses, and based on camera images, whether the horses are ones they want to remove. They're also gradually adding corral panels around the water troughs and hay to get the horses used to what will eventually be a near-enclosure. When the time comes to trap animals, officials will activate a remotely operated, automated gate while watching the horses from a concealed location.

Bait-trapping is a time-consuming process compared to using helicopters to drive horses toward corrals, requiring perhaps a month rather than a week, Dollerschell said. The agency also used the bait approach in a 2013 gather involving the same herd. It gathered 37 and selected 13 more for removal before conditions turned rainy, natural water-source and grazing conditions improved, and horses lost interest in the bait stations.

While the BLM considers helicopter gathers to be effective and generally safe for horses, Dollerschell acknowledged the politics that enters into the consideration of which method to use, given the concerns some have about helicopter use. He said various factors have to be considered in the case of every gather, including whether an emergency situation exists due to poor range conditions.

In the case of the current operation, the agency is holding out the possibility of using helicopters if needed after trying the bait approach first.

Elsmore said she likes the helicopter approach better. It's not only faster but allows for more horses to be rounded up, letting the BLM be more selective about which ones the agency then decides to remove, she said. And she was impressed by the skill she saw displayed in helicopter gathering on the range.

"We had a very good helicopter pilot who knew the area," she said.

All animals that are removed in the current gather will initially be sent to a CaƱon City facility for measures such as vaccinations and deworming. They'll then be returned to Grand Junction, where the BLM will make initial efforts to adopt them out before sending horses if need be to other parts of the state to offer them for adoption. Dollerschell said the horses likely will be offered for adoption in the November-December timeframe.

He noted that the Friends of the Mustangs already has created an adoption committee, and does things such as taking pictures of each removed animal that will be offered to the public.

"That's where they do such a great job for us in terms of getting the word out," he said.

Elsmore said one challenge right now in getting people interested in adopting horses is the high cost of hay due to the drought.

"We're hoping for the best. We're going to do advertising and do whatever we can to get them adopted," she said.

Both she and Diehl own horses adopted off the Little Book Cliffs range, although Diehl still remembers with sadness the time she avidly tried to adopt a certain horse she was particularly fond of but got outbid.

"I went out in the parking lot and I just cried," she said.