Onaqui wild horses pulled from the range

The BLM insists removal is to preserve the range, but about 200 of the beloved horses will remain

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter rounds up wild horses in the Onaqui Herd Management Area wild horse gather on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

The controversial removal of wild horses from Utah’s Onaqui Mountains began Wednesday with the roundup of 14 horses near Dugway.

Dozens of activists gathered on a hillside to observe a helicopter and wranglers drive the horses into a stock pen and document what they say is unnecessary and possibly inhumane treatment of the nation’s most beloved herd of wild horses.

The Bureau of Land Management has contracted with a livestock roundup company which is being paid hundreds of dollars per head to use a helicopter to drive horses into pens. The plan is to gather about 400 of the estimated 500 horse that occupy the Onaqui herd management area, one of 19 that BLM oversees in Utah. The agency says most ranges are overpopulated with free-roaming horses and burros that are degrading the land, and expects to conduct additional roundups this year.

According to the BLM, the group removed Wednesday consisted of a grey stallion, nine mares and four foals. The American Wild Horse Campaign posted head shots of all 14 as part of a documentary project called Onaqui Catalogue Foundation to put faces to the horses “whose freedom will be lost forever.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter rounds up wild horses in the Onaqui Herd Management Area wild horse gather on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

“At the same time, the catalogue is providing an invaluable service to identify horses for return to the range to best ensure the long term health of the herd,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of AWHC. “The BLM Utah has been extremely open to working with AWHC and the catalogue to minimize the impacts of the roundup and to make the best decisions for the return of horses to the range.”

On Thursday, another 94 horses were gathered, and all but one were sent to the BLM’s horse corral in Delta. No deaths or injuries have been reported so far on the roundup.

While these roundups are common around the West, this one has become a lightning rod of controversy because the Onaqui horses are the nation’s most observed wild horses. They live only 60 miles from Salt Lake City and are notoriously comfortable around people, so they are easy to photograph and enjoy by horse lovers.

Most of the gathered horses will be put up for adoption or spend their lives in captivity. However 52 mares are to receive injections of the fertility vaccine PZP and returned to the range with an equal number of stallions. In total, at least 200 Onaqui horses will remain on the land, according to the BLM.

But that has done little to quell concerns of various horse-advocacy and animal-rights groups that have implored the Interior Department, under the new leadership of Deb Haaland, to cancel the roundup. Most of the groups, including the American Wild Horse Campaign, want the BLM to continue treating mares with PZP as a way to keep the Onaqui numbers in check without having to resort to sterilization or roundups, while others insist the horses be left alone. Friends of Animals blasted PZP as a “fertility pesticide” that would obliterate the herd.

The roundup is expected to last 12 days and the horses will be available for adoption in October.