Branded: First 72 horses from last year’s record Sand Wash Basin roundup get new homes
After record year of roundups, Bureau of Land Management plans to gather more in 2022, including 750 from another Colorado wild horse herd
FLORENCE — As she held back tears, Jessica Mitchell’s friends tried to reassure her. She had driven from more than a half a day away to adopt several wild horses, but one was at the top of her list.
Michelangelo is the offspring of Picasso, who has been referred to as the most famous wild horse in the West.
The 4-year-old pinto Mustang was part of the first band of horses Mitchell saw when she visited the Sand Wash Basin in Northwest Colorado. She’s gone back several times since.
After Michelangelo was chased into a trap by a helicopter during the largest wild horse roundup in state history in September, advocates tried to bargain for his release back into the basin. It didn’t work.
To the Bureau of Land Management — the federal agency charged with managing wild horses and burros across the West — the stallion was one of 632 horses removed from the overpopulated, drought-stricken basin in western Moffat County.
Those horses were added to the nearly 58,000 mustangs in government corrals and pastures across the country as of December.
Last week, the first Sand Wash Basin horses went up for auction at a park near the BLM’s Cañon City holding facility.
Mitchell is the founder of Windwalker Ridge Mustang Sanctuary in Potosi, Missouri. She came to Florence on a mission to reunite as much of the herd as she can — starting with Michelangelo and his mother, Owl, a white horse that was being kept in a pen a few yards away.
At the auction, Mitchell was standing across from a man in jeans and a black Carhartt jacket who clearly had deeper pockets than she did and outbid any offer she made.
Last year’s wild horse roundup in the Sand Wash Basin ended early, removing about 100 horses fewer than initially planned, in part because of pressure on the BLM from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
State and federal officials have agreed to work together to better manage the horses, hopefully avoiding another controversial and expensive helicopter gathering operation in the basin.
The roundup removed about 70% of the basin’s horses, bringing the herd management area back within the BLM’s acceptable population range.
When the roundup ended, horses were shipped to the agency’s holding facility within the Colorado Department of Corrections campus in Cañon City.
There, the mustangs were processed, got their shots, underwent health tests and had their hooves trimmed. Stallions were gelded. They also received a freeze brand on their neck that identifies where they were once wild — a marking that signifies their status as branded mustangs.
Other than that, “they have really not been touched,” said Maribeth Pecotte, a spokesperson with the BLM.
Last week, 73 horses removed from the Sand Wash Basin left that facility on two trucks for the short trip to Florence. The BLM’s auction on March 5 was the first opportunity for someone to own one of the famous mustangs.
In the center of Pathfinder Regional Park’s rodeo grounds, the horses were grouped into various corrals. Most were older mares, but about a dozen geldings and yearlings were also held in the pens.
Steve Leonard, BLM Colorado’s wild horse and burro manager, said his goal for the auction was to find the horses new homes. Then his attention can shift to the other auctions he has planned through the summer, including one at the end of May that will bring 70 horses to the Routt County Fairgrounds in Hayden. About 20 more Sand Wash Basin horses will be used for this year’s Meeker Mustang Makeover, and some have been included in the BLM’s Trainer Incentive Program.
“I would really like to get all of these moved through this year,” Leonard said. “It’s a traveling circus, and our job is to try to find homes for these horses.”
In December, members of the Sand Wash Basin Wild Horse Advocacy Team, known as SWAT, traveled to the Colorado Department of Correction’s facility in Cañon City, where the BLM stores as many as 3,000 horses.
After getting background checks and passing rapid COVID-19 tests, Stella Trueblood, one of SWAT’s most dedicated members, met Leonard at the prison’s gates to be escorted inside.
“We went into a big pen of 100 stallions and just started taking photographs,” said Trueblood, who is from Jackson County. “We went back and did the same with the mares, and then we tried to identify each horse and their tag number.”
While the BLM has assigned each horse a four-digit number, most have names.
Linda West, a SWAT Volunteer from Vernal, Utah, said they poured over the photographs to identify the horses. When Leonard released the numbers for the horses coming to the Florence auction, SWAT alerted sanctuaries and other advocates which horses were available.
Leonard said it was a bit of a hassle letting the advocates document the horses, as the prison doesn’t typically allow photographs, but he hoped it would raise interest and help the horses get adopted.
SWAT’s informational booth at the auction had a large binder with hundreds of pictures and information about the Sand Wash Basin horses. Trueblood knows the horses as well as anyone, and she occasionally shared opinions about the potential temperaments of horses for anyone looking to adopt them.
After initially avoiding the horses, Trueblood walked around the pens the morning of the auction.
She has been a fierce advocate for the horses and was at each day of last year’s roundup, working with the BLM to identify specific horses they had identified to be released.
She didn’t have the ability to adopt any of them, and the auction may be the last time she will see many of the horses she has devoted so much time to helping.
“It’s a sad day,” she said as she made her way around the rodeo arena.
Gabriella Morales reached into one of the pens with yearling horses, hoping to entice a chestnut-colored foal closer with a fistful of hay.
She was there with a group that calls themselves Banditas Wild Horse Promise. The group’s members — Gabriella’s grandmother, Cindy Harrison of Windsor, Amanda DeNeice and Lily Hayden of Oak Creek, and Tiffany Schulze and Nadja Rider of Craig — all met out on the range.
The chestnut foal is also named Gabriella.
“It’s her namesake,” Harrison said of Morales. “That horse belongs to a horse over in another pen, and we’re hoping to reunite them.”
Before last year’s roundup, the Banditas formed and started raising money for when the horses would come to auction. In addition to donations, each of the women is a photographer and donated some of her work to raise money, though Harrison wouldn’t say how much.
Schulze said they have agreements with several landowners to take the horses they are able to adopt. They plan to gentle some of the horses, or train them well enough the horses can respond to commands.
Others will be left largely untouched, with just enough training to ensure they are safe, Harrison said.
The group had hoped to adopt a white foal that is the horse Gabriella’s half-sister, as well. At the auction in Hayden in May, Harrison said they hope to get the rest of the family.
“Our whole mission was to try to keep the family bands together as best as possible,” Harrison said.
Just before 10 a.m., Leonard called everyone into a group to explain how the auction would work. Each of the horses had a number that corresponded to a bidding sheet outside their respective pens.
The minimum bid was $125. Leonard started the bidding by sounding an alarm on a megaphone. After an hour of what functioned as a silent auction, Leonard walked around to divvy out the horses.
But the bidding was not done.
If more than one person wanted a particular horse, it triggered a live auction with bidding starting at the highest offer. For many of the horses, there was no live auction. However, when there was competition, the price occasionally neared four digits.
Some of the people looking to adopt had different strategies. Kelly Thompson, who has a boarding facility in Brighton, opted to bid on more than a dozen horses with the intent of only adopting the two she wanted most.
Others did almost the exact opposite, not bidding on anything until the live auction had started. The initial high bid for Michelangelo was just under $500, but the auction drove that price much higher.
Horses that didn’t receive any bids then became eligible for sale or for participants in the BLM’s trainer’s incentive program to take them.
Diana Shipley, a trainer with Wild to Mild Mustangs, said she didn’t see much of a difference between any of the horses.
“(BLM officials) know me really well, and they can talk me into one in a heartbeat,” said Shipley, who took some of the horses that didn’t get bid on. “There’s three horses, maybe four, that brought good money. The rest are $125. It doesn’t make that horse any better than that one.”
Pat Craig with the Wild Animal Sanctuary won the bidding for Michelangelo at $14,100, the highest price paid for any of the horses at the auction.
Established in 1980 near Boulder, the organization calls itself the oldest and largest nonprofit sanctuary in the world. It now has multiple facilities that house hundreds of animals on thousands of acres, including nearly 10,000 acres near Springfield.
Craig said the group also has plans to buy a larger 50,000 acre parcel in southern Colorado that it will eventually dub the Wild Horse Sanctuary. In all, the group adopted 11 horses, including a foal that fetched over $2,000.
“People that really cared about certain horses wanted to make sure that they stayed free,” Craig said, noting he didn’t have a limit on what he could spend. “We’re trying to help them all.”
After losing the bidding for Michelangelo, Mitchell asked Craig to adopt Michelangelo’s mother, Owl, to reunite the family. Craig agreed.
However, when bidding came around to that pen, Craig accidentally bid on the wrong white horse. Frustrated with the situation, Mitchell adopted Owl as she had initially planned to do.
“We had been working with several other sanctuaries, trying to coordinate so that we weren’t bidding against each other,” Mitchell said. “I felt like we were kind of undercut.”
Mitchell took six horses back to Missouri, including three older mares that are often harder to get adopted. Despite their attempts to plan ahead, sanctuaries ended up bidding against each other multiple times.
A part of the Banditas group, Schulze was willing to chip in some of her own money to get a large black mustang named Coal. However, he ended up going to Cynthia Klaiber with Rocky Mountain Mustang Refuge, a new sanctuary near Fairplay, for $4,100.
Klaiber also had hoped to get Michelangelo, but bowed out of the three-way auction when bidding exceeded $10,000. She had hoped to secure eight horses, but ultimately missed out on two of them.
“Our mission is to just mainly get horses out of holding,” Klaiber said. “Let them be free.”
As live bidding got closer to the last pen of foals, Gabriella Morales was a little nervous about getting the horse with the same name as her. It was one of the few foals with multiple bids.
When Leonard grabbed the chestnut foal’s bid sheet, he read off the top bid of $150 that Gabriella’s grandmother Harrison had submitted.
“Bidder No. 12 has the bid at $150. Are all bids in?” Leonard asked the crowd before turning back to Harrison. “All bids in. You still want the horse?”
“Absolutely,” Harrison replied.
Taking 70 at a time
Two truckloads of about 70 horses are the most Leonard estimated they could handle and still finish the auction in one day. If he can find them all new homes this year, more are waiting.
The BLM rounded up 13,666 wild horses and burros across 10 Western states in 2021. While it added those in the agency’s vast holding system, 8,637 horses were placed into private care. Both figures are the most in any year this century.
There are 177 wild horse and burro herd management areas in the West that the BLM has determined can collectively accommodate about 26,800 animals. But the latest estimates from March 2021 far exceed that, putting horse populations at more that 86,000.
“We’re going to remove 19,000 this year,” Leonard said. “What has to happen is we’ve got to get things in balance.”
The BLM has plans to gather more than 1,000 horses from the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area southwest of Meeker starting in August, ultimately removing 750 of them and treating the rest to control their fertility. Given the projected numbers, the upcoming roundup will overtake last year’s in the Sand Wash Basin as the largest in Colorado history.
“If we can stay the course, I think we can get to (the appropriate management level),” Leonard said. “The plan is in five years.”
Getting rid of the overflow of horses will likely take longer, and Leonard said he didn’t expect it to happen before he retires, which will be in three years.
While the popularity of the Sand Wash Basin horses has BLM officials optimistic they will be easier to find homes for, many of the horses in holding will never leave the government’s care.
There isn’t a clear cut off point, but, Leonard said, generally, if horses are more than 5 years old and get passed over more than once, they are eventually removed from the adoption system and transferred to long-term pastures.
“These guys, I think, are the exception, so our goal is that every one of these is available first,” Leonard said.
Total program expenditures for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program in 2021 exceeded $112 million, with about two-thirds of that paying for off-range corrals and pastures.
Last year, the BLM added space for 13,500 more horses in these holding facilities, as agency officials prepare to have another record year of roundups.
But 2022 should also set a record for fertility-control treatments given to horses on the range.
Appropriations bills for the Department of Interior included $11 million in dedicated funding to increase use of reversible contraceptives such as PZP.
In the past, funding for contraception has been less than 1% of the program’s total budget. Leonard said the new contraception effort would continue to be an important tool to slow population growth.
“(Colorado is) the leader in contraception,” Leonard said. “The thing we got going in Colorado is we’ve got some great partnerships.”
Last year, about 300 horses in the Sand Wash Basin — more than in any other heard management area — were given fertility control through shots from a dart gun. But it was volunteers like Trueblood that did the darting, not BLM.
Trueblood has been with SWAT since 2014. Each year, usually in March, about five volunteers risk getting their vehicle stuck in the snowy basin to dart horses. With limited resources, it’s a difficult task. Last year’s roundup further increased the work on Trueblood’s plate.
“When we started darting, it was like, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll help,”’ she said. “Here in 2022, it’s really not what I want to do; it’s just so all-consuming right now. (SWAT’s work) has grown so much, but our help hasn’t.”
Darting, SWAT’s primary way of supporting the horses, isn’t easy.
Horses need to be darted twice, and it requires significant training and a larger commitment than a summer trip to watch and photograph the basin’s horses. SWAT is a small group with just a handful of volunteers.
Ginger Fedak, wild horse and burro project director for In Defense of Animals, said she has heard rumblings about a program that would recruit veterans to help dart horses. Leonard said the BLM is starting to train firefighters to give horses contraception as well.
Trueblood has a different idea.
“What needs to change is, instead of relying on a bunch of old ladies to go out and dart like me, they need to hire people to do it,” Trueblood said.
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