LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A band of wild horses running free across the open range is an unforgettable image.  Even more memorable are the horrific images of terrified mustangs being rounded up by BLM helicopters.

Deaths and serious injuries have become commonplace during roundups, though BLM has done its utmost to keep the public miles away from these operations.  The holding facilities where the mustangs are warehoused are also highly restricted.

“The Bureau of Land Management is perhaps one of the least transparent and least accountable of all federal agencies,” said Scott Beckstead of Animal Wellness Action, one of several animal welfare groups that scrutinize the BLM program.

“And yeah, the agency is going to great lengths to make sure that the American public does not become fully aware of how it is treating these animals as well as its real motives, which of course is to free up more forage for commercial livestock,” Beckstead said.

Free-ranging wild horses gallop from a watering trough on July 8, 2021, near U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Beckstead said the program is a disaster and notes that BLM sent out 120 press releases last year to explain why its roundups are necessary for ranges and the mustangs.

“All of these mass roundups of wild horses and burros are done under the pretext that the range cannot sustain those animals,” Beckstead said.

“We then see thousands and thousands of commercial livestock turned out onto those very same areas that the agency said couldn’t support a few hundred wild horses,” he said.

After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to capture tens of thousands of mustangs, BLM hasn’t made a dent. Close to 60,000 horses are stashed in BLM-approved corrals, nearly as many as the number still in the wild.

In April, horses at two of those facilities started dropping dead, and 149 died of equine influenza at Cañon City, Colorado. And more than half of the 2,700 horses at Wheatland, Wyoming, show signs of a deadly disease known as strangles. Both facilities are severely understaffed and overcrowded. Death and diseases were inevitable, critics say.

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Jerry Reynoldson, a wild horse owner and advocate, said, “They rounded up 3,500 horses in Wyoming and then put them into a facility designed to hold 400 or 500 horses.

BLM critics like Reynoldson have long alleged the government corrals are death traps for mustangs, and now they have evidence to prove it.

BLM’s own internal assessment of its holding facilities was released a few weeks ago and confirmed their worst fears. The Cañon City facility, where 149 horses died of disease, was cited for severe understaffing. A major reason the mustangs weren’t vaccinated: structures and fences had holes and rips that were a danger to horses. Similar problems were identified at the Wheatland facility, where more than 1,300 horses appear infected.

Despite the violations, BLM gave itself a pretty good grade — a score of 83% at both troubled facilities.

READ: BLM facility assessment for Cañon City, Colorado

READ: BLM facility assessment for Wheatland, Wyoming

“I read this report and was flabbergasted,” said Carol Walker, a wild horse photographer. “I mean, it’s a picture of things being in disarray, not enough staff, not taking care of the horses, and they say it’s 83% in compliance … oh, and they’re going to do an investigation into themselves to find out what went wrong.”

Congresswoman Dina Titus, D-Nev., has already proposed a halt to helicopter roundups and wants an investigation of the recent deaths.

“There’s got to be better ways to manage horses,” Titus said. “You know one way is through birth control. Another way is more aggressive adoption. Another way is to find other places to put them besides holding pens. But the roundups with helicopters are the worst.”

Multiple studies funded by Congress have advised how to fix the wild horse program, but BLM has ignored the advice and the roundups continue at a record pace. Hopes that a new administration might fix problems have fizzled.

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Beckstead said, “It’s true that both Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and BLM director Stacy Tracy Stone Manning have heard from, you know, tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens. And yet it’s been crickets.  They have not responded.”

We requested an interview with BLM several days ago. The bureau declined but did send us a copy of one of its previous press releases explaining that the situation at the two facilities is being investigated and mitigated. Here’s their full statement:

“The BLM is monitoring and responding to an outbreak of a respiratory disease at the Cañon City, Colorado, Wild Horse and Burro Facility as well as an outbreak of Streptococcus equi, or strangles, at the Wheatland, Wyoming Off-Range Corral. BLM continues to work with the attending veterinarians on scene to investigate and mitigate the factors that may be contributing to the most severe cases and limit further spread of the diseases. See press release issued May 9, 2022, for the latest status of the Wheatland facility. On-going updates on the Cañon City outbreak can be found on the BLM website. General information on respiratory diseases in wild horse and burro facilities and how BLM responds to them can be found here.”