Utah’s Onaqui Mountains are for now largely free of wild horses — to the delight of rural county commissioners and ranchers, but to the dismay of horse lovers who revere these particular bands of free-roaming animals.
The Bureau of Land Management concluded its controversial roundup of the Onaqui herd a week early Sunday, after pulling 435 horses from public lands in Tooele County.
Over a five-day span beginning July 14, helicopters operated by a private contractor herded horses off the public range into pens with dozens of activists watching and photographing from a distant hillside. While horse roundups occur several times a year across the West, horse advocates blasted the Onaqui gather because these free-roaming animals are considered “a national treasure,” beloved by horse lovers around the world.
Foals accounted for 47, or 11%, of the gathered horses, the BLM reported, although activists believe the BLM inflated the foal count. The BLM defines foals as young horses born since Jan. 1.
The agency acknowledged that one horse died in the roundup, and another was released for an undisclosed reason. A young mare suffered a broken ankle after getting kicked as horses were crowded into a pen, according to BLM spokeswoman Lisa Reid, and had to be euthanized.
An official also acknowledged most horses taken off the range exhibited fairly good body conditions, contrary to earlier reports that many Onaqui horses were suffering from lack of water and forage due to overpopulation and drought.
The next Utah roundup is scheduled to begin Aug. 1, when the BLM plans to remove 295 horses from the Conger herd that roams the western reaches of Millard County.
Free-roaming wild horses and burros, which are descended from domesticated equines brought to the West by Spanish explorers and Anglo settlers centuries ago, have been protected under federal law since 1971. It is the BLM’s job to manage these animals, whose populations can double every six years in the absence of predators and legal hunting.
To keep horse numbers in check, the agency relies on periodic roundups, over the objections of advocates who believe the horses belong on the range. These advocates accuse the BLM of pandering to the livestock industry and ignoring or discounting less costly, more humane solutions, such as using non-invasive fertility control treatments.
Such treatments have been administered to about 60 Onaqui mares that were taken off the range last week.
Some 126 Onaqui horses were selected at the trap sites to be separated out and ultimately returned to the range, Reid said. Using dart guns, BLM staff administered a fertility vaccine called PZP to the mares.
“We have a pilot program to see if we treat 80% [of the mares annually], is that an effective population-control tool,” Reid said.
This treatment group, which contained equal numbers of males and females, was taken to a corral run by a private contractor in Sutherland. There, they are set to be examined and hair samples taken for genetic testing. They are to be returned to the Onaqui Mountains next weeks.
The remaining 307 horses were taken to the BLM corral in Delta where they will be put up for adoption in October. Those that are not adopted will join thousands of others in off-range corrals for life.