By Jamie Leary

MOFFAT COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)– Wild horse gathering operations continued for the second day on Friday, just outside of the Bureau of Land Management’s herd management area near the Sand Wash Basin.

The overall goal is to capture 786 horses and of that, around 50 will be returned to the basin. Officials say which will be returned depends on many factors. Those returned will not be the spry young ones- it all depends on age, genetic line, and confirmation of health. The number remaining will be around 162, the lowest appropriate management level deemed by the BLM.

“Once we’re down to the low appropriate management level, I have high expectations. We have a great partnership in the Sand Wash Advocacy Team (SWAT) and they are our darters on the ground. They are darting horses giving them the contraception to reduce that population gain rate,” said Steve Leonard the state lead wild horse and burro specialist.

Despite darting around 300 horses with the birth control PZP last year, the population increased by 13%. One of those SWAT members, Megan Crawford, still would like to see methods other than helicopters used for gatherings, if any at all.

“I know the BLM is mandated to maintain a healthy range and a healthy horse population, but if they removed a quarter of the horses, then that would just mean that much more forage for the horses out here,” said Crawford.

While monsoonal moisture has helped the resources across the basin recover, the BLM says early drought conditions are to blame.

“We had limited water earlier this year, so it concentrated those horses in areas that they need for forage during the winter, so now we’ve had some rains that have helped us so we don’t need to haul water, but we still have this lack of forage for our wintering areas,” said Leonard.

(credit: CBS)

On Aug. 30, Gov. Jared Polis called on the Federal Bureau of Land Management to stop roundup operations, proposing it institute an immediate six-month moratorium on roundups, allowing for better stakeholder engagement in the process.

When asked what would happen if that was done, Leonard said it would likely result in a high mortality rate for the horses.

“I don’t believe the horses would survive the winter,” Leonard continued, “I don’t think there’s enough forage in the winter in areas of the HMA (heard management area).”

While he didn’t want to comment on the governor’s request, Leonard said waiting to see what happens isn’t an option.

“Seeing what happens would put us in a position of responding to the possibility of a significant death loss, and I understand there’s a lot of second guessing going on but you know, if you look at the forage and what’s available and the number of animals, you know where they’re going to concentrate, and I do not see how there’s any way for it to support the number of animals,” he said.

Crawford says up until the large roundup, the animals have been doing well and doesn’t believe they would perish over the winter.

“For the last 50 years it may have worked but now, I think honestly we can do better, and it is very disheartening that we’re not. We’re just going to the removals, going to kind of business as usual, and being on the darting team we’ve been doing this for so long, we’ve been doing this for so long, we’ve been trying so hard to have other things happen with these horses, where they’re managed on the range where they aren’t just removed and then entire lines of horses, entire families are gone,” she said.

(credit: CBS)

On Friday, just under 20 horses ended up in corrals. Less than expected but the roundups or gatherings will continue for the next several weeks.

“I honestly believe we’re going to be able to manage these horses at a low enough population gain rate, where we can implement small bait water traps moving forward,” said Leonard. “It is my hope that this is our very last large gathering.”

Jamie Leary