Abuses of wild horses continue with more helicopters, barbwire, death and injury

Only Congress may be able to stop the carnage

The Bureau of Land Management’s helicopter roundup of wild horses in Colorado’s Piceance Basin ended on August 1, 2022, with the agency reporting that it had removed 867 wild horses, including 163 foals, from their rangeland home.

It was the largest roundup of wild horses in Colorado history and comes on the heels of a calamitous outbreak of equine influenza, a common and easily preventable infectious disease, at the Canon City corrals that claimed the lives of nearly 150 horses earlier this year.

As has become its custom, the BLM preceded the Piceance helicopter operation with a steady stream of false information about the condition of the horses and the range to convince the public the roundup was necessary to protect the range and save the horses from starving. In response, public observers published photos and videos from the Piceance Basin that showed fat, healthy horses standing in belly-deep, green grass.

Thousands pleaded with the BLM to cancel the operation or at least postpone it to accommodate heavily pregnant mares and newborn foals. Even Colorado Governor Jared Polis and Congressman Joe Neguse implored the agency to change its plans. And yet, as has also become its custom, the BLM proceeded anyway, arrogantly dismissing public will. By the end of 2022, if the BLM gets its way, at least 22,000 horses will lose their freedom and their families and will be sent to an uncertain future that could include death in a foreign meat plant.

The BLM’s shameless gaslighting over the helicopter roundups includes the claim that it conducts all wild horse and burro management according to a Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program (CAWP). The CAWP includes everything from restrictions on how helicopter contractors pursue the animals to the conditions in the holding facilities. As has become brutally clear with each roundup, the CAWP is little more than window dressing meant to convince the taxpayers that our wild equids are treated with kindness and respect.

BLM wranglers have been documented beating and poking captured burros and keeping mares and foals separated for too long, posing a serious threat to the health of the foals. 

We saw the failure of the BLM’s CAWP guidelines on Friday, July 29, 2022, when helicopter contractor Cattoor Livestock Roundups Inc. chased a family of terrified Piceance mustangs into a barbwire fence. Photos taken by public observers show a mare somersaulting through the air and landing on her back as she hit the wire, while her foal and another horse leap awkwardly to clear the fence. The incident was similar to one that occurred during a roundup in the Antelope Complex of northern Nevada a year ago, when the BLM used barbwire fencing along the wings of its trap. The Cattoor chopper chased horses directly into the fence, causing horses to crash and thrash about violently in the wire.

The Cattoor family, who have been the BLM’s number one target for wild horse and burro roundups, have a long list of observed and reported CAWP violations. These include foals left behind, foals pushed to the point of their legs breaking, horses knocked down with the skids of the chopper, and horses relentlessly chased for hours on end with no rest, including pregnant mares and foals too young to keep up with their families. After being caught, the Cattoor family has been documented beating and poking captured burros and keeping mares and foals separated for too long, posing a serious threat to the health of the foals.  Public observers have more than once complained of being bullied and harassed by the Cattoors at the operations.

Over the years the Cattoors have earned tens of millions of our tax dollars chasing our wild horse and burros with their helicopters. The patriarch of the Cattoor family, Dave Cattoor, pled guilty and was convicted in 1992 of using his aircraft to hunt federally protected wild horses to be sold for slaughter. And while the BLM publicly takes a stance against sending horses and burros to slaughter, the Cattoor website issues a full-throated call for a return to the days when captured wild horses were “processed.” Despite these alarming facts, the BLM continues to award the Cattoors million-dollar contracts for roundups, and the Cattoor choppers can now be seen chasing our protected wild equines in multiple roundups at the same time.

Most CAWP violations likely occur beyond the view of the public. The BLM positions public observers up to three miles away from the trap site, which is often hidden behind hills and ridges, to prevent meaningful observation of the traps, where most of the injuries and deaths happen. Observers are routinely denied an opportunity to see the animals in the temporary holding pens or watch as they are loaded into the trailers. Just as troubling, the agency closely restricts public access to its holding corrals, where rampant overcrowding, filth, overall neglect, and the stress of captivity lead to the kind of mass deaths we saw at Canon City. In its zeal to rid the range of wild horses, the BLM has killed hundreds of captured horses for the most minor maladies, including being underweight, being over 20 years old, or being blind in one eye.

While it references the CAWP in its public communications, the BLM makes no serious attempt to make the roundups more humane or prevent injuries and deaths. The CAWP is the BLM’s own voluntary set of discretionary guidelines. Nothing in the law requires the agency to actually abide by those guidelines.

By now, we have learned that the BLM will not do the right thing unless it is forced.

The long and growing list of horrific stories of dead foals, horses bloodied and wounded, and mass die-offs in holding corrals will only continue to grow unless Congress acts. At the very least, the CAWP must be turned into mandatory policy; better yet, Congress must pass top-to-bottom reform of all aspects of the BLM’s wild horse and burro program for the sake of the animals, our public lands, and the American taxpayers.

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The writer can be found on Twitter at @ScottBeckstead8.