Federal officials want to remove 750 wild horses from southwestern Utah. What’s at stake?

Officials point to the booming wild horse population’s effect on the land amid pervasive drought.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wild horses run free on BLM land northwest of Cedar City in 2014.

The Bureau of Land Management wants to remove 750 wild horses over a period of 10 years in southwestern Utah, pointing to the booming population’s effect on the land amid pervasive drought.

The horses could be rounded up beginning as early as July from what the BLM calls the Bible Springs Complex Area, which lies west of Cedar City in Iron and Beaver Counties, and the Blawn Wash Herd Management Area, which lies adjacent to the Bible Springs Complex.

The Cedar City field office is currently conducting an environmental assessment for the proposed roundup. The public comment period concluded June 17. Now, wild horse and burro specialists at the field office will analyze the public’s input before rendering a decision.

There are currently about 831 wild horses in those areas — much more than the combined appropriate management level of between 80 to 170 horses that such an area can support, a figure determined by the BLM.

Officials have proposed using fertility control alongside the planned removal to reduce the horse population over time. Such measures would ultimately benefit the health of wild horses and rangelands, according to Paul Briggs, the BLM Cedar City Field Manager, and “restore balance to the ecosystem.”

“We are seeing extremely dry conditions on the range right now, after several years of drought, which is compounded by a large number of excess wild horses,” Briggs said in May.

Are wild horse removals necessary?

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Free-ranging wild horses crosses a range Friday, May 13, 2022, as the sun sets near the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground.

The removal of wild horses from Utah’s rangelands is an issue that’s emblematic of a central problem facing the American West: how to balance leaving it wild with managing its natural resources, which are further threatened by a changing climate.

Legislation passed by Congress in the 1970s protects wild horses and burros in the West, and by law, the BLM must control wild horse and burro overpopulation. As part of its multi-use mission, the BLM manages these populations, which span almost 27 million acres across 10 states.

While caring for wild horses and burros, the BLM also must contend with its multi-use mission: providing opportunities for recreation, forestry, mining, livestock grazing and more.

“If we don’t manage for multi-use and take everything into consideration, then we’re not doing our job, especially when we know we’re in drought conditions,” Lisa Reid, a spokesperson for the BLM in Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We can’t take dispersed camping and all of that out for the horses. We can’t prioritize one usage above another.”

In March, the BLM reported that there were over 82,000 wild horses and burros on public lands across the country, triple their appropriate number.

Wild horse populations increase 15 to 20% annually, which can lead to the doubling of a given horse herd every three to four years. The Cedar City field office reports that the ongoing drought in Utah has depleted rangeland resources and compromised the health of the wild horses in these areas.

But there is another culprit for the degradation of Utah’s rangelands: livestock. Cattle far outnumber wild horses on the range and compete for the same resources.

“Utah is one of the most contentious states between ranchers and wild horses, because wherever wild horses are found, cows are typically found as well,” Grace Kuhn, communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign, told the Tribune. “The BLM prioritizes industry. It’s no wonder that these animals that don’t bring in any money, but only interfere with the profit of industry, are going to be scapegoated.”

There is data to back up Kuhn’s claim. A federal analysis last year found that the BLM grossly underreported range damage caused by livestock, instead blaming wild horses for such degradation.

The BLM in Utah manages 19 wild horse and burro herd management areas on almost 2.5 million acres. In contrast, the BLM in Utah manages approximately 1,410 grazing allotments over 22 million acres in the state. At the same time, ranching on public lands provides less than 2% of the country’s beef supply.

Utah ranchers have previously sued the BLM for not removing enough wild horses, since they compete with their livestock for resources.

The determination of appropriate management levels for each HMA is also a point of contention within the wild horse roundup debate. A 2013 report conducted by the National Research Council found that the way “appropriate management levels,” or AMLs, are determined was not transparent to the public, supported by scientific information or responsive to changes in a given herd.

Many of these AMLs are decades old, but the BLM is required to conduct a rigorous land-use management plan to change them, which takes time and resources. On top of that, tumultuous administrative turnover in Washington, D.C., means that in recent years, the BLM hasn’t had a consistent plan for dealing with wild horses.

As such, the question of the best way to manage the West’s wild horses remains unanswered.

What’s next for the Bible Springs herd?

(AP Photo|Rick Bowmer) A helicopter pushes wild horses during a roundup on July 16, 2021, near U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Federal land managers are increasing the number of horses removed from the range this year during an historic drought. They say it's necessary to protect the parched land and the animals themselves, but wild-horse advocates accuse them of using the conditions as an excuse to move out more of the iconic animals to preserve cattle grazing.

The Cedar City field office is expected to render a decision in the coming weeks. If approved, this will be the first time since 2018 that the BLM has gathered horses from the Bible Springs Complex, Reid said.

The fertility control included in the BLM’s proposed action involves administering birth control vaccines to the animals; PZP or GonaCon-Equine are two common vaccines that the agency uses.

To reach the appropriate management level for these herd management levels, the BLM can remove animals and administer birth control to mares to stagnate population growth over time. Iron and Beaver Counties both requested the use of fertility control on these wild horse herds.

Some fertility control treatments can be administered from a distance, but most animals need to be rounded up for treatment, according to the BLM. The goal of these population suppression techniques is to no longer have to conduct gathers and removals.

Through its ongoing environmental assessment, the BLM must consider a wide range of issues, including how wild horse removal would impact livestock grazing, rangeland health, soil, wetlands, riparian resources, wildlife and the wild horses themselves.

If approved, methods of capturing wild horses vary depending on herd health and season, but often include helicopter drive trapping, water and bait trapping, and roping.

The BLM in Utah has already conducted two wild horse removals this year.

In February, the Cedar City field office rounded up about 376 wild horses from the Sulphur Herd Management Area in western Utah. There were 600 wild horses at the time. The appropriate management level for that herd is between 165 to 250 animals on the area’s 265,711 acres.

Horses gathered during that roundup were transferred to Axtell Off-Range Contract Wild Horse Facility in Axtell, Utah. The BLM also administered fertility control to the animals.

The Price field office conducted a roundup in the Sinbad Herd Management Area in late April and May, during which they removed about 300 wild horses from the range and implemented fertility control. The appropriate management level for that herd is between 50 and 70 animals on 99,241 acres, as determined in a 2008 resource management plan.

The BLM also opened a new wild horse and burro holding facility earlier this month in Sutherland. The 30-acre facility can hold up to 1,500 wild horses while they await adoption or sale.

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