The Bureau of Land Management is set to begin a controversial roundup targeting a photogenic Utah herd of wild horses this week over the strident objections of horse advocates who contend the BLM’s horse program is a colossal waste of tax dollars and inhumane.
According to the land agency, the Onaqui herd, named for the mountain range in Tooele County where the horses roam, have overpopulated the range.
Horse advocates dispute those claims and are calling on the BLM to ditch its roundup program in favor of fertility control, which the BLM’s own science advisers have recommended.
The BLM is planning numerous roundups around the West this year, as part of a contentious horse removal policy expanded under President Donald Trump’s time in office. The Onaqui project is by far the most controversial because it targets a beloved band of horses that people travel to Utah to watch. These horses are among the most photographed wild herds because they are so easy to approach, yet they still behave like wild animals, to the delight of observers.
This herd is believed to harbor descendants of horses that once worked the fabled Pony Express, whose historic trail passes though their range.
Horse advocates gathered at the Utah Capitol July 2 to denounce the Onaqui gather and the BLM’s round-up program in general, which has led to thousands of horses landing in off-range captivity for life at a cost of tens of millions of dollars a year.
“The science is on our side,” said Deniz Bolbol of the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group. “What’s happening today here in Onaqui is happening to wild horses across the West. And there are win-win solutions that can benefit the ranchers and our wild horses. But we need an administration that has leadership and doesn’t want to just follow the status quo.”
Advocacy groups insist the BLM should rely on a fertility vaccine known as PZP to stabilize horse numbers, rather than conducting roundups every few years. The Onaqui herd is a good candidate for PZP because the drug can be administered with dart guns, obviating the need to gather the mares off the range to give them the injection. In fact, many of the Onaqui mares have been inoculated in this manner over the past several years, but BLM officials say it’s not working as well as hoped.
Starting Wednesday, contract wranglers using helicopters will gather up to 400 horses in the Onaqui area, about 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The plan is to direct the animals into pens at a cost of $800 a head. This would be the fourth time in 15 years that this herd has been targeted, yet its numbers remain far above the 210 the BLM claims the range can support.
BLM officials say the Onaqui herd management area (HMA), like the 18 others in Utah, is overpopulated with horses and removal is the best way to ensure both the health of the herd and the range.
“Ongoing drought conditions are resulting in a significant number of wild horses moving outside the Onaqui [herd management] boundary in search of forage and water,” states a recent letter the agency wrote to one advocacy group. “The ongoing lack of precipitation has caused many plants to not experience a spring growing season, exacerbating the already limited forage situation within the HMA. This is leading to a potentially dire situation for the wild horses.”
Agency staff have observed a “significant decline” in the Onaqui horses’ body condition, the letter states.
But activists like Bolbol reject the BLM’s claims that horses are in poor shape and are damaging the range. They say the real damage is caused by domestic livestock, which outnumber horses nine-to-one on the land.
“It’s time for the Bureau of Land Management to stop taking its marching orders from the livestock industry and start taking his marching orders from the American people,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, at the July 2 rally.
According to the BLM, there are 95,000 wild horses and burros roaming the West, about triple what the agency says the land can support. These free-roaming animals are protected under a federal law passed 50 years ago. Under the Trump administration, the BLM stepped up its reliance on horse removal. Advocates are pleading with the new Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, to change course.
Interior has signaled a greater openness toward fertility control but officials say the Onaqui round up will go forward as scheduled. This is because, the Onaqui herd management area, or HMA, now holds at least 475 wild horses, far more than the 121 to 210 the agency has deemed to be the “appropriate management level,” or AML.
Advocates argue the population targets are nothing more than a convenient fiction to justify roundups.
“This is a rigged system,” Bolbol said. “This is a fraudulent number that they make up so they arbitrarily give 80% of the forage on our public lands to commercial livestock, and then they [shortchange] the wild horses and give them 20%. And any horse over 20% is ‘over population.’”
Over the course of 12 days this month, the BLM plans to gather a total of 296 horses and transport them to its corral in Delta.
Those selected to be returned to the range will then be shipped to a newly authorized contract corral a few miles away in Sutherland. Earlier this year, the BLM selected a livestock-handling operation run by G & R Livestock, Inc to serve as short-term holding facility for up 1,000 horses on 20 acres of private land.
Up to 52 mares will receive fertility control treatments at this site, which is not open to the public, and be returned to the range with an equal number of stallions.
The remaining 296 will be put up for adoption in October. While Onaquis are among the most adoptable wild horses—because of their distinctive markings and familiarity with humans—many will likely wind up spending the rest of their lives in captivity in facilities in the Midwest. More than 50,000 formerly free-roaming horses are kept this way at an enormous expense to taxpayers.
In 2019, the BLM removed 241 of the 510 horses then inhabiting the area. On most Wednesdays since then, volunteer shooters administer PZP to Onaqui mares under BLM supervision. Some 345 mares have been treated in this manner, including 164 in 2020 alone, according to BLM spokeswoman Lisa Reid. One group, the American Wild Horse Campaign, has formally asked the BLM to indefinitely postpone this week’s roundup to allow this program to continue and document what happens. If most of the Onaqui horses are removed, nothing can be learned from the years of data that has been gathered so far.
“The abiding popularity of the Onaqui wild horses, and the relative ease of access to the [herd management area], have also enabled local advocates to amass a wealth of knowledge about the herd and its individual horses, which the BLM should utilize in revising its plan to promote the humane and sustainable management of this population for the foreseeable future,” states the group’s April 21 request, which was joined by Western Watersheds Project, a group that doesn’t usually participate in the wild horse debate.
But the BLM has already concluded the program won’t effectively control the herd’s population because it has gotten too large to ensure enough mares receive the vaccine and annual boosters to make a difference.
“We would have to treat a minimum of 80% of the mares in order to see any kind of any positive result from administering birth control,” Reid said. “Once we gather and we’re able to treat all the mares, then we should really start seeing a positive result with a population decrease. That way we can start from a good place rather than trying to catch up continuously like we’re doing.”
Some critics allege the BLM plans to “annihilate” the herd, brutally haze horses with helicopters and allow some to be shipped to slaughter. However, deliberately killing wild horses and burros or treating them inhumanely would be a violation of federal law, subject to criminal penalties. Additionally, about 200 Onaqui horses are to remain on the range, leaving a self-sustaining population to roam freely, according to the BLM’s gather plan.
Still there is reason to be concerned for the animals’ fate.
Horses are sometimes injured or killed in helicopter roundups, particularly if they panic while being directed into the gather pens or if they are driven into fencing that crisscrosses the open range. And there is evidence that the BLM’s horse adoption program has been abused by some who accept the government’s $1,000-per-horse adoption incentive and then sell the horses to kill buyers.
Under current law, slaughtering horses, wild or otherwise, for food is illegal in the United States under most circumstances, but many are shipped to Mexico or Canada, where the practice is legal, according to the Humane Society.