The Bureau of Land Management has been forced to postpone putting up a few hundred wild horses, most of them recently removed from northern Utah’s Onaqui Mountains, after mustangs at the BLM’s Delta corral tested positive for a highly contagious form of equine distemper.
Known for their colorful markings and tolerance of people, the Onaqui horses are among the most visible and well-known free-roaming equines in the West. As a result, they are frequently photographed and remain the subject of an experimental fertility-control project in which a contraceptive is administered to mares with dart guns.
Under the leadership of the Trump administration’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, fertility control has been deemphasized in favor of removing “excess” horses from the Onaqui and other herd management areas. That approach has been continued by Zinke’s successor, David Bernhardt, whose acting BLM boss, William Perry Pendley, embraces removal in hopes of finding adoptive homes.
Wild horses have proliferated on the West’s public lands, where they roam freely and are protected under federal law. Descended from domestic horses and burros turned loose by explorers centuries ago, these wild equines are not native to North America.
Federal policy has largely relied on removing horses from overpopulated “herd management areas.” The BLM has been experimenting with a fertility vaccine to mares and returning them to the range, but that approach has been scaled back by the Trump administration under pressure from ranching groups.
A longtime property-rights lawyer, Pendley previously has represented Wyoming ranchers in a suit against the BLM to force the agency to remove wild horses from the public range, where they were competing with livestock.
At a recent gathering of environmental journalists in Fort Collins, Colo., Pendley declared that wild horses pose the gravest threat to the West’s public lands, even though these animals are outnumbered at least 9-to-1 by their bovine relatives.
“We have 88,000 wild horses and burros on our Western federal lands, and they are causing havoc on the lands,” Pendley said Oct. 11 at a conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “Some land in the West is so devastated and destroyed, it will never recover. Never recover. That’s a long darn time, and we’ve got to do something about it.”
He announced a sharp increase last week in the pace of horse adoptions, thanks largely to a new program that pays adopters $1,000 to give untrained horses a good home. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the BLM adopted out 7,104 wild equines into private homes, the highest number in the past 15 years and a 54% jump over the previous year.
Still, Pendley acknowledged adoptions will not be enough.
“We are trying to work with Congress and with various groups, the animal welfare groups, people using the lands, the ranchers, the cattlemen, the local people, to try to solve this problem,” he told the journalists. “It’s a tens of billions of dollars problem. And moreover, for me, as the manager of those lands, [it] is the existential threat to the quality of those lands.”
Most removed horses remain in captivity for life in contract pastures in the Midwest at an ever-increasing cost to the public. Presently, the BLM is responsible for 47,000 captive horses at an annual tab of $50 million.
The BLM was supposed to have released a report in July on revised plans for managing wild horses. After Pendley announced Oct. 23 that it would take $5 billion and 15 years to control horse populations, congressional Democrats sent a letter to Bernhardt demanding the release of the report, saying it is needed to guide effective management going forward.
“It is clear that the BLM’s current practice of rounding up wild horses and burros and warehousing them off the range is not addressing the population growth,” states the letter released by Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo.
For many advocates, Utah’s Onaqui herd is hoped to guide a way through the wild horse morass. These horses are comfortable around people, so it is easier to inject them with contraceptives as needed every other year.
They are also healthy and attractive. Their coats come in a variety of hues, including sorrel, roan, buckskin, black and palomino. They could be ideal candidates for adoption, the path Pendley is prioritizing.
The BLM employs volunteers to administer regular doses of fertility vaccines to Onaqui mares. By 2017, the Onaqui herd’s population had reached about 450, more than double what the BLM claimed the 205,000-acre herd management area near Utah’s Skull Valley could sustainably handle.
From Sept. 11 to Sept. 19, cowboys rounded up 241 Onaqui horses, and the BLM delivered them to the Delta corral. A stray mule was handed over to local authorities. Nearly all were in good to very good condition, but two mares had to be put down after fracturing legs during the roundup, according to the BLM.
Horses targeted for removal were roaming the periphery of the herd’s territory and were not part of the fertility-control program, according to BLM spokeswoman Lisa Reid. That program remains in place and resulted in 90 mares receiving the treatment, which must be re-administered annually, this year.
The BLM’s Delta staff began seeing signs of the disease known as “strangles" on Oct. 16 in the gathered horses and initiated testing with Utah’s state veterinarian, whose lab confirmed the presence of the bacteria that causes Streptococcus equi. No horses have died of the disease, which is akin to strep throat, Reid said.
The horses were slated to be put up for adoption Nov. 1, when they were expected to find homes, but that event is now on hold while the horses remain in quarantine at the Delta corral, according to said Gus Warr, who manages the BLM’s Utah wild horse and burro program.
“The BLM takes the health of every wild horse and burro seriously. Facility staff and the contract veterinarian will monitor the Delta facility horses closely," Warr said in a news release last week. “After all signs of infection have passed, the quarantine will be lifted and horses ready for the January adoption.”
Correction • Oct. 29, 10:55 a.m. • This story has been corrected to note that the BLM’s fertility-control program targeting Utah’s Onaqui wild horse herd remains in effect.