The Bureau of Land Management next week is expected to issue a decision on whether to pursue a long-term plan for reducing wild horse numbers through a variety measures, including helicopter roundups, bait trapping and fertility control treatment, in a herd management area in Rio Blanco County about 50 miles north and east of Grand Junction.

The agency estimates that 838 horses currently live in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area generally in central Rio Blanco County east of Colorado Highway 139 and south of Colorado Highway 64. The BLM has a target management level of 135-235 wild horses there, which it says would maintain a thriving ecological balance and healthy rangelands in keeping with the agency’s multiple-use mission for the area.

Some 400 more wild horses live west of Highway 139 on acreage not designated as a herd management area, where the BLM’s goal is to have no wild horses living.

“We are committed to maintaining a healthy population of wild horses in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area as well as being a good neighbor to the communities we serve,” Kent Walter, the BLM’s White River Field Office manager, said in a recent news release. “We are currently supporting more than 1,200 wild horses in areas where the appropriate management level allows for up to 235. The removal of excess wild horses over the next few years will reduce impacts to private property and promote healthy rangelands.”

The BLM has conducted numerous wild horse “gathers,” which involve methods such as using helicopters to drive them to corrals or bait to attract them, in and around the Piceance-East Douglas area, with the most recent being in 2017. The last one in the herd management area was in 2011, when 260 horses were removed. Horses to be removed under the proposed plan likely would be taken to a BLM holding facility in Cañon City, and then adopted out, sold or sent to long-term holding facilities.

The BLM is proposing also introducing the use of fertility control in the herd management area to reduce annual population increases currently estimated to amount 20% each year. The treatments primarily would consist of a vaccine administered to mares through means such as field darting, with the potential for intrauterine devices also to be used, according to an environmental assessment.

The Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area is about 190,123 acres, including about 158,310 acres of BLM-managed land, 26,490 acres of private land and 5,330 acres of state land. In October, the White River Field Office authorized the removal of about 75 horses from private land in the area due to impacts on that land. Maribeth Pecotte, a BLM spokeswoman, said that there are initial plans to proceed with removing 25 horses from the private land, with panels starting to be put up for a bait trap probably next week.

She said she believes fertility treatments in the herd management area could start this year if the BLM approves its proposal. According to the environmental assessment, funding limits and competing priorities for long-term holding facilities may affect the timing of gathers and fertility treatments in the area over the years. The BLM’s national headquarters prioritizes and approves all gathers, Pecotte said.

In December, the BLM announced plans to remove about 50 excess wild horses from public and private lands in and adjacent to the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area in Moffat County. An estimated 828 wild horses live there, and the BLM’s appropriate management level there is 163-362 horses.

The BLM planned to primarily use bait trapping in that operation. Pecotte said she thinks they have removed 10 or 11 horses from public lands under the operation. The BLM had planned to remove 20 from private lands under the operation based on requests from landowners, but the horses are no longer there, she said.

The removal on the public lands is aimed at reducing the risk of horse-vehicle collisions on Colorado Highway 318, for the safety of the horses and the public. Pecotte said another wild horse was struck on the highway around September or October. She said a group has raised money and gotten Colorado Department of Transportation approval to install some fencing on the highway to address that danger, possibly later this year.

The BLM says prolonged drought is causing horses in the herd to travel more in search of water and vegetation, impacting public and private lands.