Who is shooting Utah’s Onaqui wild horses?

The answer is worth $22,500 for info about the killing of two stallions found dead March 19.

For the past few years, two young stallions, a bay and a pinto, roamed Utah’s Onaqui Mountains and surrounding rangelands together, enjoying life on the range as bachelors. Sometimes they were recorded in photographs taken by visitors drawn to this area 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City in the desolate Skull Valley where the Onaqui horses have become celebrities.

Last week, the two buddies died together, pointlessly killed by someone with a rifle on Simpson Springs Mountain Road.

The Onaqui horses are among the nation’s most beloved, studied and photographed free-roaming equines, but some are now turning up dead with gunshot wounds. Information leading to the arrest of the culprits is worth up to $22,500 under a reward announced Thursday by the Bureau of Land Management and horse advocacy groups.

Whoever shot the stallions last week acted illegally and faces potential jail time, according to a BLM press release. The animals were found dead Sunday and had been killed two or three days earlier.

“Harassing, capturing or killing wild horses is illegal and punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a fine,” said BLM West Desert District Manager Mike Gates. “The BLM takes our responsibility seriously to protect these animals and is committed to holding accountable whomever is responsible for this unconscionable act.”

The horses were bachelors, one known to be born in 2017, according to Samantha Couper, chairwoman of the Onaqui Catalogue Foundation, a Utah-based nonprofit that catalogs the Onaqui horses on its website. They were approaching the age when they would have became breeding stallions and joined mixed-gender bands, but now it’s likely their genetic lineage died with them.

“I happen to know the sire, the father of the pinto, all of his other known relations either died on the range of natural causes or were removed in 2019 and 2021,” Couper said. “So by removing the stallion with this unnecessary killing, they have essentially cut off that genetic line and probably have decreased the genetic variability in the herd which is so important to their long-term survival.

With its distinctive markings, the pinto was dubbed Jasper and the Blue Eyed Colt by Onaqui visitors. Couper’s associates rarely saw the two apart and observed them taking a younger bachelor under their wing.

“Jasper would sometimes also be seen additionally with a young bachelor, 1 to 3 years old,” she said. “We interpreted this as him taking on a mentorship role. [The unnamed bay stallion] would aid by preventing other horses from fighting close or getting too close to the younger horse.”

Last summer these horses were seen protecting a mare shortly after it had given birth as older stallions tried to approach.

The BLM itself routinely rounds up and removes wild horses from public lands under a controversial program to limit their populations on the open range, where they compete with domestic livestock for forage.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wild horses from the Onaqui wild horse herd gather around Simpson Springs, on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

The unregulated killing of wild horses by ranchers led to the passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, declaring these equines to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” The law further declares wild equines protected “from capture, branding, harassment, or death and that they are an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”

But in the absence of natural predators, which have been all but eradicated from the landscape, horses have seen tended to proliferate to unsustainable levels, leading to conflicts with ranchers, especially in times of drought when forage is scarce, according to the BLM.

In 2021 and 2019, the BLM gathered 435 and 241 Onaqui horses off the range, respectively. Following the 2021 roundup, which was denounced by several horse advocacy groups, 123 were returned to the range.

The American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), Onaqui Catalogue, the National Mustang Association and Red Birds Trust are often at odds with BLM’s horse policies. But not this time. These groups have all contributed to the BLM’s reward seeking information on the recent killings, indicating a rare instance of unity between land managers and horse advocates.

“AWHC is pleased to join with the BLM in offering a reward to bring justice for the violent and senseless killing of two iconic stallions who were members of the beloved Onaqui wild horse herd,” said that group’s executive director, Suzanne Roy. “Shooting these protected animals is a serious federal crime and we stand ready to assist the BLM in any way possible to hold the perpetrators accountable under the full force of the law.”

The group has seen a troubling rise in illegal horse killings, according to spokeswoman Grace Kuhn.

“Just in Utah last year, 16 wild horses were found dead, and that number ticked up to 23 by the end of it, 25 horses in Arizona, five in Nevada,” Kuhn said. “We are seeing this festering hatred for these animals, I believe because of these conflicts that we’re seeing on public lands. This is a cause for concern because these are federally protected animals that have the same level of protection as the American bald eagle, and unfortunately, they’re just being treated as if that doesn’t matter.”

The 23 horses killed in Utah last year were found dead in San Juan County. That case remains unsolved. Critics say it was not adequately investigated.

While the horse advocacy groups opposed the BLM’s Onaqui roundups, they acknowledged they were conducted following a public process and were subject to appeals and scrutiny.

“Even though deaths do happen in the federally mandated process, it is still federally run,” Couper said. “It has opportunity for public comment, environmental assessments, and also legal action and public pushback before the events occur.”

Last week’s killings, by contrast, simply robbed these two horses of their lives and the American public a chance to see them in the wild. A large cash reward associated with the killings of Jasper and his friend is justified considering their herd’s outsized profile, according to Couper.

“In terms of their lives to a horse, everything’s the same. They’re all worth the same amount,” Couper said. “But in terms of the amount of public involvement in the horses, the Onaqui are very well documented. They’re close to Salt Lake City and Tooele, so you have a huge amount of public eye, and it gives us an opportunity to create a public response.”

So while the illegal killings of horses and burros elsewhere in the West might go unnoticed, these victims had a connection to people and these people are willing to pay to bring the killers to justice.