A federal wild horse roundup in Utah’s West Desert is drawing fire after four injured horses were put down and photos surfaced showing helicopter wranglers swooping down as some of the galloping animals ran into barbed wire fences.
Photos shot Monday by an observer affiliated with the American Wild Horse Campaign depict one horse tumbling hard, hooves in the air, after striking a fence as a chopper hazed a band toward a trap, according to the photographer, Steve Paige.
“We call on the [Bureau of Land Management] to suspend the roundup underway currently in Utah by grounding the helicopters while an investigation is undertaken of the animal welfare violations documented by our observer,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign. “Nearly hitting wild horses with helicopters, repeatedly causing them to crash into barbed wire, and stampeding horses in a manner that leaves foals behind is unconscionable.”
She cited her group’s concerns in a letter sent Tuesday to the BLM’s Utah director, Ed Roberson. The complaint targets the practices of BLM contractor Sampson Livestock, based in the Millard County town of Meadow, and demands the agency’s horse gathers comply with the agency’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Policy.
The BLM acknowledged that horses hit the fence while a helicopter pursued them.
“Fewer than a dozen wild horses escaped capture and some briefly became entangled in a fence,” spokeswoman Kimberly Finch said in a statement. "The horses easily extracted themselves, and no serious injuries were observed. The fence, which was in place prior to the gather, was appropriately flagged to increase visibility to the horses. The BLM continues to adhere to our principles of compassion and concern for the animals we manage, while at the same time continuously working to improve operations where possible.”
The four euthanized horses were suffering from pre-existing injuries, according to Finch.
This month’s Utah roundup is the latest in a series the BLM is staging around the West to remove horses that officials say exceed the capacity of the lands they occupy. It targeted five adjacent horse management areas in Beaver and Iron counties west of Milford, collectively known as the Bible Spring Complex and Sulphur, whose horses numbered 1,400.
The gather concluded Wednesday after the removal of 250 horses, 50 over the number the BLM had originally targeted for removal.
These horses were sent to the BLM’s corral in Delta, where officials plan to adopt out as many as possible, although it is likely most will join the thousands of others held in on-range pastures for life. In contrast with past Utah roundups, no horses are expected to be returned to the range.
There is universal agreement that the never-ending cycle of horse removals is not sustainable because they do nothing to keep the population growth in check and add to the inventory of horses already being warehoused for life at a cost of more than $50 million a year.
U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican whose district covers much of the state’s wild-horse territory, is advocating more frequent roundups and surgical sterilization of mares that would be returned to the range.
Stewart repeatedly has noted that the West’s wild horses and burros far exceed the 27,000 the BLM has established as the “appropriate management level." He says many horses are starving on the range, their numbers depleted by drought and overgrazing.
“The range simply cannot handle an additional 50,000 horses" above appropriate management level, Stewart said Thursday. “I am continuing my bipartisan efforts to address the issue ... and will continue to meet with horse advocates to discuss how we can solve the issue.”
After a town hall-style meeting last week in Salt Lake City, Stewart touted his proposed reforms, saying a broad “consensus” supported them.
But many horse advocacy groups deeply oppose sterilization. They argue that ovary removal puts mares at risk of infection because there would be no post-surgical care on the range and permanent sterilization disrupts horse bands’ social order.
“Your agency is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to round up wild horses from public lands where very few wild horses remain …. but where over 1,400 privately owned cows are allowed to graze, thanks to our taxpayer subsidies,” Roy wrote in her letter to Roberson. “This roundup exemplifies your agency’s inhumane treatment of wild horses, fiscally reckless policies and continuation of the ‘business as usual’ practices, which five years ago, the National Academy of Sciences called ‘expensive and unproductive for the BLM and the public it serves.’”
Most advocacy groups prefer increased use of the noninvasive contraceptive called PZP, but Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has dismissed its efficacy, which is temporary lasting only a year or two, and the practicality of inoculating thousands of mares over the course of their lives.