Science and the Bureau of Land Management disagree about the origins of Colorado wild horses

Researchers have found fossils proving horses evolved in North America. The BLM says European settlers brought them West.

The Bureau of Land Management, or the BLM, completed its first Colorado-based helicopter wild horse roundup of the year. 

With less than a four-day notice, the federal agency announced they would employ low-flying helicopters to herd the entire West Douglas wild horse population, about 122 animals, into holding pens starting on Sept. 1. They later announced that they would continue with the roundups in Colorado throughout September and October.

The cost of the 9-day roundup came out to around $187,000. The number doesn’t include the cost of transporting the animals to Cañon City or the expenses of holding the horses in captivity.

BLM officials say the appropriate number of horses in the West Douglas Herd Area, an area of more than 120,000 acres, is zero.

KGNU’s Alexis Kenyon reports.

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Helicopter roundups of wild horses are highly controversial. They sparked protests last year and even resulted in Colorado Gov. Jared Polis sending the Bureau of Land Management a letter requesting a more humane way to gather the horses.

The BLM has rounded up about 1,500 in Colorado–all within the Northwest region of Colorado. They say the appropriate number of horses for the West Herd Area located in Rio Blanco County is zero.

The BLM largely stopped its use of helicopter round-ups in Colorado in 2023 until the last week of August. They announced the agency would carry out a number of new helicopter roundups throughout September – with the first roundup occurring Sep. 1. This was four days after the official announcement.

Deputy State Director at the Bureau of Land Management, Allan Bittner says he understands why some people are upset, but helicopter roundups are not as bad as critics make them out to be.

“Well, related to helicopter or drive trap roundups. We feel they’re one of the most safe and humane ways of gathering horses,” said Bitter.

Bittner says the BLM has tried other methods of rounding up the horses but they proved to be more dangerous.

“Years ago, we used to try to wrangle them with you know, running out there with horses and trying to bring them in and things like that. And there were always more injuries and more things like that from those types of things versus a helicopter around,” Bittner said. “So, we think, we’ve proven that helicopter roundups are a very safe and humane way of gathering horses.”

“That’s a joke,” says William E. Simpson II, a wild horse ethologist and CEO of the Wild Horse Fire Brigade. Simpson’s nonprofit, based in Oregon, rescues wild horse herds and relocates them into areas where they can mitigate fire risks.

“You know why they say that, right? ‘Cause it listens good,” said Simpson.

He says getting hundreds of horses to run for their lives for hours on end is not only inhumane for the horses but for everything else that lives on that landscape. “They frighten all of the wildlife on the landscape: the deer, the elk, the horses … anything in that area. They trample the landscape. Small nesting birds get crushed and their eggs, small mammals and reptiles.”

Photo of wild mustangs, courtesy of Michelle Gough

In Nevada, the BLM is facing a lawsuit after 31 horses died in a weekslong helicopter roundup this summer. According to witnesses, the first eleven deaths included five young foals and four horses with broken necks. Helicopters chased a stallion with a snapped rear leg for 35 minutes as it fled on three legs before euthanizing it. Last year in Colorado, 140 horses died of equine flu after being taken to the Cañon City holding facility.

“Of course, during 2021, there was a roundup in West Douglas and the herd. They took off 457 horses because 10 died in that helicopter roundup,” said Simpson.

In herds of wild mustangs, there is usually one dominant mare. Weak or sick foals are sometimes left behind by their mothers if the dominant mare wants to move on. Photo courtesy of Michelle Gough
Wild Horse roundups began in the U.S. a couple of years after President Richard Nixon signed the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 1971 into law.

Before the law, wild horses were on the decline because of hunting and development. The law put the Bureau of Land Management in charge of making sure the population of “feral horses” didn’t get out of control.

Cassandra Nuñez is a wild horse researcher and assistant professor and the University of Memphis. She says publicly commenting on wild horse roundups can be a scary thing to talk about as an academic.

“Actually, when I got your email too, I was kind of like, eh… but, you know, unless we talk about these things, there’s no way to address them and even get anywhere near fixing them so I thought, whatever I can do to help,” said Nuñez.

There is a debate about wild horses and where they fit into the North American ecosystem. Wild horse advocates and many academics argue that wild horses are native to North America but the BLM classifies horses as non-native, meaning they’re an invasive species.

“It’s just so controversial, this idea that horses are completely invasive. That’s just not true. They evolved on this continent,” said Nuñez.

The scientific story around horse evolution has changed since 1971 when the BLM was put in charge of managing wild horses. Researchers have uncovered fossil records showing horses evolved in North America for tens of millions of years before the Ice Age when they seem to have gone extinct.

“The fact is we don’t know exactly why. It could have been climate. It could have been overhunting by humans. Likely, it had elements of both. Rarely in these things is: is it a this or that? It’s more of a yes, and,” said Nuñez

After they went extinct, fossil records show that they returned to North America in the early 1500s. Back on the land where they once evolved to survive, they quickly began to spread. More evidence shows they made their way to North America from Mexico and were traded along indigenous trading routes prior to the arrival of European settlers in the U.S. West.

“The fact is that bringing horses back here from Europe was definitely not like introducing rabbits to Australia, for example. It was bringing back an animal that evolved here, that evolved in this ecosystem,” said Nuñez.

Despite the new research, the legal language and policy around wild mustang herds in the U.S. have not evolved. Horses are still defined as non-native.

Nuñez says that by the BLM’s definition of native, it’s hard to defend the rationale for removing wild horses from public lands… especially when they are putting livestock on those lands in place of the horses. “The horse is a native species and the cattle is just something we’re raising to eat, but again, I hesitate to, to damn the BLM or anything because I’m not in their shoes, right? Like, from my understanding, Congress tells folks to do things and then it’s just like, figure it out. And, you know, there’s not enough money to do it.”

William Simpson of the Wild Horse Fire Brigade says not recognizing wild horses as native to North America has major political and economic impacts.

“Everybody knows they’re native, but they don’t want to say it because as they say it, then they’ve got a whole new problem to deal with because now when you have under 100, 000 endangered species that are native. Then, what do you do? Well, that’s going to put more restraints on the landscape,” said Simpson.

Simpson says sticking to this non-native categorization is not just bad for the horses- it’s bad for the land where they once grazed.

“Ninety percent of the seeds come out and they germinate in their dung so they reseed and fertilize the landscape,” Simpson explains. “They put the microbiome back into the soil. They’re highly beneficial organisms on the landscape.  The horses provide sustainable grazing for everything and sustainable food for everything. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would almost be funny because it’s so ridiculous for the BLM to even say this.”

As of September 9th, the Bureau of Land Management reported it had rounded up all 122 wild horses, including 57 stallions, 44 mares, and 21 foals from the West Douglas herd region, an area that is close to the size of  Boulder and Denver counties combined. According to the American Wild Horse Campaign, about 60,000 horses are in federal holding facilities nationwide.


Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon


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