Critics of a national conference on wild horses, opening this week in Salt Lake City, assert its state organizers have closed the event to the public and excluded key figures in the horse-advocacy community.

Utah State University is hosting the three-day event starting Tuesday in an effort to provide participants “with the best available science, to help them make informed decisions about the issues,” concerning the management of wild horses on the West’s public lands, according to organizer Terry Messmer, a USU professor of wildland resources.

But leading pro-horse advocates counter that Utah officials are using the summit to promote a policy shift toward lethal measures for managing the West’s bands of federally protected, free-roaming horses and burros.

“It’s spearheading the fight to slaughter America’s wild horse,” fumed Suzanne Roy, executive director of the umbrella advocacy coalition American Wild Horse Campaign, who questioned the legality of using taxpayer funds on the conference, when the public is not invited.

“It’s a secret meeting,” said Roy, “and they are censoring any information that supports a humane alternative to slaughtering wild horses.”

Organizers rejected that characterization of what is being called the National Wild Horse and Burro Summit, open only to those invited. Privacy is needed to protect participants, Messmer said, and to promote “open dialogue.”

Horses and burros are not native to North America, and many of those roaming the West are descendants of domestic ones turned loose by Spanish explorers and American pioneers in past centuries.

Groups affiliated with American Wild Horse Campaign, including Return to Freedom and the Cloud Foundation, are passionate defenders of the animals, which they believe are an iconic and integral part of the nation’s heritage.

With equal fervor on the other side are public-lands ranchers and rural county commissioners, who say horses relentlessly proliferate to the detriment of the West’s arid rangelands and the ranching way of life.

Management of these horses and burros falls to the Bureau of Land Management, which has been locked in a costly cycle of roundups in a seemingly endless effort to keep horse populations within what are deemed “appropriate management levels.” Horse numbers are chronically two or three times those levels in many areas.

No advocacy for either side will be allowed at this week’s summit, according to Messmer.  “I am very adamant about that,” said the professor, who directs USU’s Berryman Institute, which is devoted to addressing human-wildlife conflicts.

“They will be talking about their research, their policy, their management and status of the program,” he said.

Messmer denied state money is being used for the summit, whose costs are covered by registration fees. However, most of the presenters draw a government paycheck and the science teams hail from public universities.

Speakers include Utah Gov. Gary Herbert; Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Aurelia Skipwith; Nevada State Veterinarian J. J. Goicoechea; members of Utah and Nevada’s congressional delegations; Utah Rep. Chris Stewart’s chief of staff, Brian Steed; John Ruhs, the BLM’ s Nevada state director; and Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike Styler

About 250 are expected to attend and public agencies are likely covering many attendees’ registration fees, which range from $275 to $400.

The conference starts Tuesday with a tour of the BLM’s Delta corral. The media are invited to the Wednesday’s session at the Marriott City Creek, to cover remarks by elected officials and science presentations, but not to Thursday’s sessions, which include facilitated workshops that won’t be recorded.

While closed meetings are sometimes considered anathema to scientific debate, Messmer defended the secrecy as a necessary precaution in the face of threats against some of the participants, including filmmaker Ben Masters. Other speakers regarded as anti-horse partisans are Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson and attorney Frank Falen, whose Cheyenne, Wyo., law firm has repeatedly sued the BLM over horse management and other issues on behalf of ranchers.

“We’ve got over 50 organizations represented, including three leading horse advocate groups that are part of the registration,” Messmer said. He named the American Mustang Association, the American Mustang Foundation and the Wild Mustang Foundation. None is listed among the American Wild Horse Campaign‘s 59 member groups.

As of Monday, the summit’s website password protected for “security” — with organizers saying they fear activists might try to disrupt the proceedings.

Messmer said the site will be open to all after the conference and audio recordings of most of the discussions will be posted, but the secrecy has fostered distrust among horse advocates. Return to Freedom President Neda DeMayo denounced the summit as an anti-horse echo chamber, not a solution-oriented meeting.

“This is absolutely not a way to find common ground,” DeMayo said. “There are readily available tools that could allow the BLM to end this costly, cruel system of helicopter roundups and off-range holding and manage wild horses in a humane, sustainable way, instead.”

Logo for a three-day conference on wild horses and burros, held in Salt Lake City starting Aug. 22, 2017.

Horses advocates also pointed to the event’s logo, which features silhouettes of an emaciated horse and burro — perpetuating a false narrative, they said, that wild equines are starving. Utah county commissioners often make this assertion to press that horses be removed from the range for their own good.

Roy recalled observing the BLM’s helicopter roundup of 125 horses from Beaver County’s Bible Springs area just last week.

“I saw magnificent, fit, healthy horses on a healthy range,” she said. “They were all in good conditions. There is no evidence horses are starving in Utah.”