Merlin, a stallion protecting a foal separated from its mother during this week's wild horse roundup near Maybell, Colo. Merlin escaped the BLM enclosures on Tuesday and is now back on the range. Photo courtesy WilsonAxpe Photography.

The Bureau of Land Management has halted its attempted roundup of wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin horse management area in Moffat County.

The total number of horses rounded up by BLM, using helicopters, is estimated at 608, short of the 783 BLM had said it needed to clear from the area. Advocates for the herd have been pressing members of Congress and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to halt or delay the roundup and a more robust stakeholder process. And they're now calling for a congressional investigation into how the roundup was conducted.

The total population before the roundup was estimated at 828. The BLM will take 50 of the 608 horses off the range and send them back to the herd, leaving a final population of around 270. That's less than what the area would support, according to even the BLM's estimates of 362 horses.

The BLM cites drought, scorched habitat from wildfires and overpopulation as justification for the roundup, which it called an "emergency gather." However, advocates for the herd claim recent monsoons have restored the watering holes, and that the land can support far more than 163 horses. They also claim BLM is clearing out the herd to make more room for sheep and cattle grazing, and that using helicopters is inhumane and could result in injuries and even deaths in the herd.

A spokesman for the BLM's western office did not return a request for comment on why the roundup was ended early. BLM had estimated it would take 14-25 days to remove the horses, a roundup that started on Sept. 1.

On Tuesday, according to the American Wild Horse Campaign, Merlin, a stallion that had been protecting a foal separated from its mother, escaped the BLM enclosures and headed back to the open range.

But the captures also included the death of a foal, euthanized by the BLM, which claimed the injuries — four broken legs — were "pre-existing."

AWHC observers said the six-month old colt had been left alone on the range overnight Tuesday and was found near the trap site Wednesday. The colt was euthanized due to "difficulties in movement and coordination," which BLM said were "pre-existing and non-gather related." However, the AWHC said the symptoms exhibited by the foal are consistent "with capture myopathy or 'capture shock,' a condition in which muscle damage results from 'extreme exertion, struggle or stress.'"

Observers have claimed seeing horses being run over long distances in temperatures over 90 degrees and coming into the traps at gallop speed. That's a common cause of death of young foals at roundups, according to AWHC.

Now that the roundup is over, the Sand Wash Horse Advocate Team, a volunteer non-profit that works with BLM on birth control measures in the herd, selected 25 mares and 25 stallions to return to the herd.

AWHC and other advocates are calling on U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, chair of the National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee, for a congressional investigation into the contractor hired by BLM, Cattoors Livestock Roundups, for violations of federal humane animal laws in how it conducted the roundup. 

They note the BLM adopted a 2015 comprehensive animal welfare program, and promised prior to the start of the roundup it would adhere to the CAWP. However, observers allege horses were being pursued in excessive distances, to the point of "obvious and observable exhaustion" and at speeds that foals could not keep up with, potentially a violation of the CAWP, which dictates that roundup speeds should consider the weakest or smallest animals in the group, such as foals, pregnant mares or injured horses.

The CAWP says helicopters "must be operated using pressure and release methods to herd the animals in a desired direction and should not repeatedly evoke erratic behavior in the [wild horses & burros] causing injury or exhaustion. Animals must not be pursued to a point of exhaustion; the on-site veterinarian must examine [the horses] for signs of exhaustion." 

Observers alleged the contractors also harassed and threatened public observers, and that the BLM ordered those observers to "look away" when the contractor was chasing a lone foal by helicopter.

The BLM claimed the roundup was an "emergency gather" due to drought conditions, but by the time the roundup started those conditions no longer existed, according to observers. Then the BLM changed its reasons, claiming it was to protect sage grouse habitat.

The Department of the Interior has received numerous letters from the public as well as public officials regarding the roundup, including from Neguse and Gov. Jared Polis. Through a spokesman, Haaland has refused to comment on those requests.

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