A helicopter, sometimes flying just feet off the ground, chased them across the high desert, over a hill and down into metal chutes where men lay in wait to slam a gate closed behind them.
Over the course of that roundup in the Warm Springs Herd Management Area, 281 horses were taken into captivity. Three of them died from gather related injuries.
Nothing the Bureau of Land Management does with wild horses is more controversial than its forced roundups, removing thousands of animals from the range.
Most frequently, the BLM hires helicopter cowboys to chase herds for miles until they can funnel them into pens. Critics call the practice brutal. The BLM calls it the only practical way to cover so much ground and says the practice is humane.
Now independent reviewers from the National Academy of Sciences have weighed in, saying the roundups may actually spur even more births in the wild, the exact opposite of BLM’s goals. Horses normally limit their own reproduction when food is limited. By removing so many animals, the scientists say the horses no longer need to compete for food and reproduce at a faster rate. On average, BLM roundups end with about one percent of the horses dead.
“Accidents happen,” says Oregon BLM wild horse manager Rob Sharp. “Some degree of serious injury or mortality should be expected in the handling of wild horses, even domestic horses.”
Wild horse advocates call the deaths entirely preventable.
“I saw a baby die and nobody do a damned thing,” says wild horse advocate Laura Leigh. “Changed me forever.”
Leigh runs Wild Horse Education and has become one of the BLM’s fiercest critics. She has sued the agency in federal court repeatedly in an attempt to halt roundups, and won a temporary restraining order to ensure humane treatment of horses in a roundup in Nevada. Additionally, because of her actions, a federal court has ordered BLM into mediation to grant access to the public so they may observe how roundups are conducted.
Leigh has also joined other activists who regularly monitor BLM roundups with cameras. Photos taken by her fellow activist, Leslie Peeples, at the Warms Springs HMA roundup show a mare in a panic. She tries to escape, only to slam so hard into the metal pen that the mare breaks her neck and slumps to the ground. The BLM later said that contractors euthanized the mare to end her suffering.
“I’m the eyes and ears and so I’m just making sure that I document everything clearly so that people can see the truth,” Leigh says.
The Humane Society of the United States says its observers have also witnessed animals being harmed and killed during roundups.
Scott Beckstead, the Humane Society’s Oregon Director, says he’s also struck by the independent scientists who found that roundups may make wild horse populations larger, not smaller. “By aggressively removing large numbers of horses, we’re actually encouraging them to boost their reproductive rate above what it would normally be,” he says.
Once horses are rounded up and taken to corrals like the one the BLM operates near Burns, mustangs face one of two fates. They get three chances to be adopted or they get exiled to pastures in the Midwest for the rest of their lives.
While most horse advocates oppose the forced roundups, they generally support the adoption programs for the horses already seized.
However, the BLM’s reliance on adoptions has hit a serious downturn. A decade ago it could find homes for all the horses collected. Today only 30 percent get adopted. The vast supply of horses created by so many roundups has overwhelmed the demand for horses. Once horses are passed over three times for adoption, the BLM ships them to long-term pastures in the Midwest where they live for the rest of their lives.