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Almost half of Wyoming's wild horses were rounded up in the latest BLM gather in the Red Desert

Wild horses released on BLM land outside Rock Springs.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Radio
Nine mares return to BLM land after being treated with fertility control. They were part of the Red Desert BLM roundup that gathered more than 4,000 wild horses between last fall and January.

Wyoming’s Bureau of Land Management recently wrapped up one of its largest wild horse roundups in the southwest part of the state, and while controversial, many who live in the area said it is necessary.

About 80 percent of wild horses in the Sweetwater County area were gathered between last fall and this January.

The roundup is part of the ‘Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act’ that was passed by Congress in 1971. It requires the BLM to manage wild horses when they overpopulate. According to the BLM, the number of horses in southwestern Wyoming was double what their data shows the land can sustain.

“So we have to make sure that that population number stays in a range that we can have healthy wild horse herds on healthy rangelands,” said Brad Purdy, acting deputy state director of communications for the Wyoming BLM. “The horses and the range are codependent on each other.”

The majority of the 4,161 horses gathered will remain in captivity, however 659 of them were returned to BLM land.

“We're always going to gather more animals than we're actually going to remove,” Purdy said. “And a lot of that is so the mares can be treated.”

They are treated with birth control using either PZP, a drug, or an IUD, an intrauterine device.

Wild horses being released on BLM land outside Rock Springs, while photographers stand by.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Radio
A couple observers watch and photograph as the wild horses run onto the BLM land after being treated with fertility control. The release concluded the BLM roundups on the Red Desert.

On a windy day in mid-February, the last nine of the mares treated with fertility control were released back on BLM land, just outside Rock Springs.

“This is the very last step,” Jay D’Ewart, BLM Wild Horse Specialist, said. “And it feels very good to have them back out on the range.”

A few spectators came to watch.

Krista Hubbard, a Rock Springs resident who spends a lot of time on BLM land rockhounding and taking photos of the horses, said she initially was upset at the roundups, especially because they use a helicopter to gather the horses.

“It was far less aggressive than I would expect them to be,” Hubbard said. “Which was really kind of refreshing, they’re not just down there just right on them. He just kept them kind of going in the general direction he wanted them to go, and they went exactly where he wanted.”

There were 37 horse deaths during the roundup; however, 27 were because of pre-existing conditions like a club foot.

Although Hubbard said she did not like the horses being taken off the land, she understands why it is done.

“It’s for their health and their well-being to make sure they’re not out here starving to death in the winter,” she said.

Some national groups vehemently oppose the BLM roundups. According to the American Wild Horse Campaign, it is “costly and inhumane.” The organization claims that the land can sustain more wild horses than the BLM allows.

Hundreds of horses in the Rock Springs holding corrals, seen from the observation area.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Radio
Around 800 horses are in the long term holding facility outside Rock Springs where they are available for adoption. Horses are also placed in training programs and other holding facilities across the state.

The majority of the horses gathered are put up for adoption. Lisanne Fear is a lifelong resident of nearby Sublette County and has adopted multiple mustangs.

“Once you have that trusting bond and that connection, they’ll do absolutely anything for you, which is completely different from any domestic horse I've really been around,” Fear said.

She is currently riding a few of her mustangs across the country, advocating for the adoption of wild horses.

There are nearly 60,000 wild horses and burros in BLM care nationwide., and according to BLM data, it costs about $50 million yearly to take care of them.

But, Fear said not rounding up the horses and leaving them all to free roam on public land is not viable either.

“Those horses are really, really hard on the ground. All the other wildlife that you see in Wyoming that are native – like your deer and your elk – those all have natural migratory patterns and the horses don’t really have migratory patterns,” she said. “So what happens is they sit in an area and they just kind of devastate that area.”

Some ranchers say the horses compete for the vegetation on the land with their cows, but not all ranchers feel that way. Tara Miller, part-owner of Miller Land and Livestock in Sublette County, said she likes mustangs.

“They eat a little grass and they water in the tanks, but there’s not enough of them to disturb our cattle at all,” Miller said.

The majority of the horses from this year’s roundup are in long-term holding facilities, with about 800 in the Rock Springs corrals. A lot of the horses will remain there until adoption, while some will go to horse training facilities and other long-term holding facilities across the state.

The BLM’s Brad Purdy said it remains to be seen if there will be another roundup in southwest Wyoming.

“If we’re seeing things like drought conditions, if we’re seeing horses' body conditions start to deteriorate, well, then we might have to start getting out there and thinking about doing a gather,” Purdy said.

The BLMis currently assessing whether there will be a wild horse roundup in the Lander area later this year.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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