Editor’s note: This story is part of a collaboration between the Aspen Daily News and KDNK radio. For the audio story, visit tinyurl.com/KDNKSandWashRoundup.

Standing on a hillside in the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area, the breeze carries a thunderous boom from miles away, but there are no storm clouds in sight. It’s the sound of about a hundred horses hoofing the ground as they’re loaded into trailers, 40 at a time.

The horses in the trailers are as wild as the sagebrush that grows in northwestern Colorado. They will be taken to a facility in Cañon City, where the Bureau of Land Management will hold them until they can be deemed fit for sale, adoption or long-term holding.

Meg Fredrick, a photographer for the California-based wild horse and burro advocacy organization Return to Freedom, has spent the past seven years visiting the Sand Wash Basin and documenting the herds that roam the area. To see the horses that she’s come to love throughout their lives loaded into trailers and shipped far away is like having a broken leg, she said. Over time, she and the other advocates have gotten used to the pain.

“We are numbed,” she said. “The energy from this land is gone. We hate it when we hear the cattle trucks in the morning because we know they’re taking away our babies.”

The BLM announced on Aug. 27 that an emergency gather was necessary in the Sand Wash Basin due to drought conditions. In the first nine days of September, 631 horses were gathered. In its environmental assessment from Aug. 17 — which declared the situation an emergency — the BLM said it intended to gather 733 horses total, out of the 896 it found living inside the basin in July. Only 728 of those were found to be residing inside the herd management area, or HMA, and another 100 were found just outside. According to the BLM, an “appropriate management level” for horses inside the Sand Wash HMA is 163 to 362 wild horses, and removing 733 horses would get the population total to 163.

The BLM announced that the Sand Wash gather had concluded Wednesday; however, the bureau announced the same day that it would begin gathering the wild horses outside the HMA. Also on Wednesday, the Sand Wash Advocacy Team, which assists the BLM with controlling herd populations within the HMA, identified 50 horses — 25 mares and 25 studs — to release back into the management area after treating the mares with fertility control, a common population management tool used to ensure that wild horse populations do not grow beyond the appropriate level. The horses were to be released on Saturday.

Naysayers abound, including Gov. Polis

Advocates like Fredrick believe that the BLM should not allow livestock to graze on wild horse HMAs. In Sand Wash, four livestock grazing allotments overlap the HMA, allowing cows and sheep onto the land. The BLM allocates a certain amount of forage to livestock and wild horses, known as an animal unit month. One AUM is equivalent to one horse’s forage, one cow-calf pair or five sheep, and according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, BLM rangeland data shows that livestock has degraded the forage inside those overlapping allotments to the point where there should have been reductions in the number of livestock on the range.

Brian Clopp, a photographer with the American Wild Horse Campaign, said he’s seen livestock numbers grow dramatically after wild horse roundups.

“For every hundred cows, you have one wild horse at a minimum,” he said. “That would eliminate a lot of the excuses they’re doing for these gathers, where they take out a couple hundred horses and leave thousands of livestock — and then bring in more livestock once the horses are gone.”

Advocates are not the only ones alarmed by the inconsistencies in the BLM’s data and decisions. Gov. Jared Polis and First Gentleman Marlon Reis wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and BLM Deputy Director of Policy and Programs Nada Wolff Culver on Aug. 30 to encourage a six-month moratorium on wild horse roundups. Despite the request, the Sand Wash gather continued as planned.

“There remain legitimate concerns about the fate of gathered horses, and I believe that better collaboration with the state and advocates could improve assurances about their long-term well-being and the avoidance of any potential slaughter,” Polis wrote. “There have been concerns raised about how truly accurate the estimates are with respect to ecosystem herd carrying capacity, particularly with a nearly two-fold variability in the ‘Sand Wash Basin appropriate management level’ estimate.

“Furthermore, the large scale of this roundup, and tactics employed, almost certainly creates the opportunity for unintended injuries and in particular for the separation of foals from mares,” the letter continued.

Polis’ office denied a request for an interview with the Aspen Daily News via email on Sept. 3. On Thursday, his office released a statement following the announced end of the Sand Wash gather.

“While I wish this roundup hadn’t even started, I’m encouraged by the opportunity to chart a more humane course for our state’s beloved wild horses,” Polis said. “The outpouring we heard shows how much people care for the well-being of these iconic Colorado animals, and our administration can play a key role in engaging people who can work together to ensure the health and well-being of Colorado’s wild horses for generations to come.”

A wild horse gather in action

Prior to Sept. 4, those observing the Sand Wash gather were allowed one hour to visit the corrals where the horses were held after the roundup. But due to conflicts between observers, that time was shortened to 30 minutes. Black fencing surrounding the corrals made it difficult to view or ­photograph the horses, but advocates familiar with the herds were able to recognize specific horses.

BLM contractors used two helicopters to gather the horses in Sand Wash. Once they neared the corrals, the helicopters would hover low over the ground to blow dust behind the herd, encouraging the horses to run uphill into a fenced-in alley that leads to the corrals. Fredrick said the trap site used at Sand Wash was placed in a particularly dangerous area — a hillside covered in sharp rocks, unforgiving shale and steep gullies.

“This is what the little foals are being run through,” she said. “These are leg-breakers. They’re coming through here, and they’re running top speed through these little valleys and holes and washes, and each wash has these huge rock croppings. Not only are they scared, but then you turn around and this is the path they’re taking.”

The Wild Horse and Burro Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program is the policy the BLM follows when conducting gathers, and it states that the rate and distance at which the horses travel during a roundup shall not exceed limitations set by the contracting officer’s representative and the project inspector. Gathers are usually limited at a distance of 10 miles, but BLM Colorado spokesperson Chris Maestas said that a 10-mile radius is a loose limitation and the program does not set a hard number of miles that horses can run.

On Tuesday, horses were gathered primarily from the north and northeast ends of the HMA near Lookout Mountain, which was approximately 10-15 miles away from the trap site. Temperatures that day reached 92 degrees.

During a gather, horses can become separated from herds or become injured. In some cases, a veterinarian determines that an injury is too severe for the horse to survive and the animals can be euthanized. On Monday, for example, a foal was separated from its mother and fell behind the group. It was later seen approaching the trap site with a stallion, and observers did not know what had become of the pair until the following day.

“The stallion got free, but the foal was able to go in, and we have a vet on site and so that vet was able to take a look,” Maestas said Tuesday. “There was concern from the vet that we should probably send [her] into the Craig Animal Hospital and so [she] was taken over there, and we followed up last night and they said that she was drinking water but she hadn’t started eating yet. I haven’t called in this morning yet.”

Situations like these can be avoided, but they are not uncommon in roundups. As outlined in the Aug. 17 environmental assessment, the BLM considers alternative solutions to roundups, such as increased fertility control, gathering fewer horses or taking no action at all. Clopp said they could be considering additional solutions like a wild horse sanctuary, something that he said he would love to see.

“These are herd management areas — these aren’t livestock grazing lands, but they’re being treated as such,” he said. “So have it so that it’s a horse sanctuary. Have areas where there can be horses but no livestock, cause we already have so many places in this country where there’s livestock but no wildlife.”

What happens to these horses?

After a day of gather activities, the captured horses are counted, sorted by sex, marked with spray paint, watered and fed. They stay in the corrals overnight until trucks come in the morning to take them to the Cañon City holding facility.

Fredrick said only 1% of the horses taken to Cañon City will be adopted. Data on the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program website shows that this August, there were 1,183 horses in holding in Cañon City — and in the 2020 fiscal year, 138 horses were adopted in Colorado. Adoption data is not yet available for the 2021 fiscal year.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption events were held twice a month and potential adopters could visit the facility and adopt horses, wild horse advocate Carol Walker said. Things are different now.

“They normally have adoptions starting in February, and I think it was just they didn’t want to deal with it,” Walker said. “I adopted a horse from there before, and there were usually 13 or 14 people per event. It was small, but people would go. And in the past, I had been allowed to go in there and photograph, and then people would say, ‘Oh, I want that horse,’ and they would go to an adoption. Except this time they wouldn’t even let us take pictures at all.”

When the horses arrive in Cañon City, they are prepped for adoption. Cañon City facility manager Steve Leonard said this means they are given shots and immunizations, gelded, freeze marked and tested for diseases. Then the horses will be put up for adoption via satellite images, which Leonard said is common with groups of popular horses like the Sand Wash herd.

“Adoption numbers are challenging,” Leonard said. “It’s dependent on what is wanted. I think we nationally did a 60% adoption rate of horses removed last year. This year, I can’t tell you. I would just say, I expect this to be well over the national average because there is lots of interest in these horses.”

In 2020, 9,181 horses were rounded up across the country and 3,311 were adopted, according to BLM data. That’s about a 36% adoption rate.

In March 2019, the BLM launched its Adoption Incentive Program, which provides $1,000 to qualified adopters who adopt an untrained wild horse or burro. More than 8,250 horses and burros have been adopted through this program, according to the BLM website. Adopters do not receive the title to the horse or burro they adopt for 12 months, and they are required to certify under penalty of prosecution that they will not knowingly sell or transfer the animal for slaughter or processing of commercial products. The BLM is required to investigate any possible violations of prohibited acts when they are notified of an animal being offered for sale. Options include returning the animal to BLM care, barring the adopter from participating in future adoptions or referring the case to an attorney.

“Outright, they have to sign a contract saying they will not take those horses for commercial use — meaning slaughter or anything like that,” Leonard said. “In fact, I’m working with sanctuaries to try to say, ‘let’s place these older horses, they may not be ideal for training or a normal adoption, but they could fit well for the sanctuaries.’ And I have been in contact with multiple [sanctuaries].”

Despite the BLM’s assurance that the majority of the horses go to good homes, advocates and legislators say the adoption program only creates an increase in horses illegally sold for slaughter because of the promised cash. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, called for greater protections against the resale of wild horses on Aug. 17 and urged the BLM to conduct a full investigation into the adoption program in a letter to Haaland.

“I believe more must be done in light of the disturbing allegations that some adopters have mistreated or illegally sold wild horses and burros, and respectfully urge BLM to conduct a full investigation of the matter and prevent such adopters from adopting again,” she wrote. “Additionally, I urge BLM to re-evaluate its cash incentive for the adoption of untrained wild horses and consider prioritizing such federal payments to subsidize training for adopted wild horses to increase the likelihood that they stay in loving homes instead of ending up at slaughter.”

Organizations like the American Wild Horse Campaign and the Sierra Club also have spoken out against gather activities, including writing letters to Haaland, in the case of the Sierra Club, and suing the BLM for protection of wild mares in Utah, in the case of the wild horse campaign. After operations conclude in Sand Wash, the BLM will conduct another roundup later this month at four HMAs in the area known as the Wyoming Checkerboard.

Numbers and statistics from the Sand Wash gather can be found at blm.gov/whb, as well as information on roundups at other locations.