BLM hears public comments for and against helicopter roundups

BLM hears public comments for and against helicopter roundups

BLM hears public comments for and against helicopter roundups

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management held an annual public hearing on the use of helicopters and motorized vehicles to round up wild horses and burros. Most of the verbal comments were against helicopter gathers due to the injuries and deaths that can occur.

The BLM is required by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to hold annual public hearings on “the use of motorized vehicles in the management of wild horses and burros.” The agency says it uses aircraft and ground vehicles during roundups, wild horse and burro population surveys, transportation to short-term holding corrals and long-term holding “pasture” facilities and to animal adoption, sale and transfer events throughout the country.  

Despite vocal opposition to chopper roundups from wild horse and burro activists, the BLM hires airborne wranglers to trap and remove thousands of animals from public land. 

Last week’s hearing confirmed the controversy goes on while helicopter roundups continue.

“Clearly CAWPs (Comprehensive Animal Welfare Policies) are not being followed. The use of helicopters to chase pregnant mares and foals is outrageous and inexcusable,” said Sandra Holloway of San Diego County, California. “Many times the foals are run to death or, as happened in Nevada recently, chased in such a manner as to break a leg.”

Activists challenge the BLM claim there are excess wild horses and burros on public land.

“Without any scientific basis, the BLM maintains there is an overpopulation of wild horses and burros in the American West,” said Rick Karcich of Centennial, Colorado. “In efforts to control this supposed overpopulation, the BLM is directed to humanely capture wild free-roaming horses and burros and put them up for adoption.”

Eureka County Natural Resources Manager Jake Tibbits spoke in favor of helicopter roundups to protect rangeland from excess wild horses and burros despite the animal injuries and deaths.

“Eureka County asserts that helicopter and other motorized vehicle use for gathers of excess and other management of horses and burros is efficient, effective, safe and humane especially over wide areas in rugged terrain,” he said. “Eureka County recognizes some tragic losses of wild horses because of isolated accidents associated with gathering by helicopter but these rare, unfortunate circumstances must not be used as reasoning to cease or limit use of helicopters for gathers and management.”

In defense of helicopter roundups, Tibbitts quoted a Journal of Equine Veterinary Science article that reported an animal mortality rate of one percent for helicopter traps, 1.7 percent for bait and water traps with the majority of the deaths related to pre-existing health conditions.

However, wild horse and burro advocates, some of whom observe helicopter roundups, say the average number of animal deaths as a result of stress and injuries is higher than one percent.

H.R. 6635

This year, U.S. Congressman Dina Titus (D-NV) introduced H.R. 6635: “Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 2022” that calls for an end to helicopter roundups due to the animal injuries and deaths. Titus introduced the bill in February after seeing a video of a colt falling behind the herd and breaking a leg during the Pancake Complex helicopter roundup in January.

The bill calls for an end to helicopter roundups, an increase in on-the-range fertility control and more humane roundup methods such as bait and water traps.

“The use of helicopters to chase equines over prolonged distances, usually on rough terrain, is particularly dangerous and can frighten the animals and lead to deadly situations.”

The bill says the end of helicopters “would provide significant savings to taxpayers” and that the BLM spends less than one percent of its Wild Horse & Burro Program budget on fertility control.  According to the bill, roundup contractors are paid $500 to $800 per animal they capture and the top three helicopter contractors have earned more than $36.8 million since 2011.

H.R. 6635 also calls for a GAO report on humane alternatives to helicopter and fixed wing aircraft in wild horse and burro management, job opportunities created by the alternatives and the effects of aircraft, including drones on wild free-roaming wild horse and burro populations. 

After it was introduced in the House of Representatives, the bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources. If it is passed by that committee and the House, the bill could go to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources then to the Senate for a vote.


Last week, the BLM increased the number of wild horses and burros to be rounded up by helicopter in fiscal year 2022 to 22,995 animals. The list includes 800 burros and 200 wild horses in the Blue Wing Complex in Pershing County according to the WHE website.

Tibbitts said too many wild horses and burros are an environmental threat to public land that also provides wildlife habitat, grazing allotments, mining, hunting and other outdoor recreation.

“It’s imperative that something be done now to conserve and restore the health of these rangelands negatively affected by excess horses and burros,” Tibbitts said. “Helicopter use is crucial towards addressing this need.”