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Three months in, record wild horse gather begins final stage

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Helicopter Horse Roundup

A helicopter herds wild horses near Rock Springs in October as part of the Bureau of Land Management's effort to gather and remove thousands of animals from Wyoming management areas.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Thursday entered the third and final phase of its biggest wild horse gather to date.

Before operations began in the White Mountain and Little Colorado herd management areas, the agency had removed 3,121 wild horses from southwest Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin, Adobe Town and Salt Wells Creek management areas since Oct. 7 — nearly three-quarters of the 4,300 it expects to capture. It has returned 488 horses to their home range, including 237 treated with fertility control, and anticipates returning roughly 312 more by the gather’s end.

According to Brad Purdy, acting deputy state director of communications for BLM Wyoming, mild weather conditions in December enabled the agency to complete the second stage, in the Adobe Town and Salt Wells Creek management areas, on Dec. 6.

Operations resumed a month later, on Thursday. During its first post-holiday gather, the BLM removed 119 horses — 50 mares, 44 stallions and 25 foals — and recorded four deaths, bringing the total to 20.

While Thursday marked the largest number of single-day deaths, only one death resulted from injury during gathering operations, the agency said. The other three horses were euthanized due to preexisting conditions, including a club foot, a sway back and a broken leg.

Each herd management area has a minimum population range set by BLM resource management plans, in accordance with the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. An estimated 5,105 horses lived in the five management areas before the gather, while the agency is only required to maintain a combined population of between 1,550 and 2,145 horses.

The goal of the gather, Purdy said, is to reach the low end of that range, without reducing wild horse populations below their legal minimums.

Proposed revisions to existing resource management plans, negotiated in 2013 with the Rock Springs Grazing Association, could lower those population minimums to zero in the Salt Wells Creek and Great Divide Basin herd management areas, nearly halve the Adobe Town minimum and prevent reproduction in the White Mountain management area.

The White Mountain area houses Sweetwater County’s Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Tour, a 24-mile route dedicated to the animals. The agency plans to remove more than half of the region’s 563 horses — a move likely to make horses harder to spot along the trail, according to Grace Kuhn, communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign.

“After the roundup, the wild horses are going to be more scarce and difficult to find than they already are today,” Kuhn said. “This significantly impacts the experience of recreational users who travel to these public lands for wild horse viewing and photography, as well as the local economy that uses this as an ecotourism resource.”

Lawsuits from both sides of the debate have shaped and reshaped wild horse management over the last decade: As the Rock Springs Grazing Association pushed the agency to reduce wild horse populations near private lands, the American Wild Horse Campaign advocated for policy reform and use of fertility controls over removal.

“Our public lands belong to all Americans,” Kuhn said. “And every American has a say in how our public lands are being treated and managed.”

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