Utah wild horse roundups after hitting population targets must stop, judge rules

A lawsuit brought by an animal rights nonprofit challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s plans for two wild horse herds in the state.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter rounds up wild horses in the Onaqui Herd Management Area wild horse gather in 2021. A judge recently ruled that the Bureau of Land Management cannot conduct "maintenance" wild horse roundups in two areas in Utah, including the Onaqui Herd Management Area, under previously adopted management plans.

In a win for wild horse advocates nationwide, the federal government can’t conduct previously planned wild horse roundups in Utah following a U.S. district judge’s decision.

Friends of Animals, an animal advocacy nonprofit, challenged population management plans for wild horses and burros in Utah and Nevada by the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency tasked with protecting the animals on public land.

The nonprofit claimed that the plans authorized wild horse roundups without public input or proper environmental review. The roundups can be violent and have led to horse deaths.

The judge ruled that the BLM can’t conduct “maintenance gathers,” where the agency rounds up horses and burros from a given area after the agency has reached its target population for that area. Moving forward, the BLM must issue new decisions to conduct roundups after achieving a population goal.

“The BLM is trying to remove horses, and they’re not accountable or transparent to the public in what’s driving those decisions,” said Jennifer Best, director of the wildlife law program for the nonprofit animal advocacy organization Friends of Animals.

“I’m hopeful that this decision will pull back on the BLM’s unbridled discretion to remove horses, and that they will have to rethink things once the public is able to give input again,” Best said.

The recent ruling affects the wild horses in Utah’s Muddy Creek and Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Areas.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) A helicopter pushes wild horses during a roundup on July 16, 2021, near U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.

Both the BLM and the State of Utah moved to dismiss Friends of Animals’ lawsuit and failed. The BLM did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment for this story.

A 1971 law tasks the BLM with managing and protecting wild horses and burros, including controlling overpopulation. According to the agency, wild horse and burro populations can increase by 15 to 20% annually, doubling every three to four years, if left unchecked.

The agency determines the number of animals that a given area can support, called an appropriate management level, by analyzing available vegetation, water supply and other animals competing with horses for those resources, like livestock. The BLM reports that overpopulated horses suffer from food and water scarcity, worsened by climate change and drought.

The BLM in Utah manages 19 wild horse and burro management areas, which account for nearly 2.5 million acres across the state.

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

The Muddy Creek Herd Management Area spans over 200,000 acres near Emery, Utah. The BLM determined that the area can sustain between 75 and 125 horses. The Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Area, on nearly 250,000 acres just 60 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah, can support 121 to 210 horses, according to the BLM.

To reach sustainable populations, the BLM routinely removes wild horses and burros from the range, often using helicopters. The agency relocates the animals to holding facilities, where they await adoption, sale or shipment to pasture. Alongside roundups, the agency also use fertility control vaccines to reduce wild horse and burro populations over time.

The BLM developed ten-year management plans for the two areas, authorizing roundups for “maintenance,” even after achieving appropriate management levels.

“That cuts out the ability for the public and advocacy groups to weigh in and our ability to review what information the agency is relying on and our ability to bring the cases to court,” Best said.

“We are optimistic this victory will mean an end to all of BLM’s long-term decisions where it rounds up wild horses for 10 years at a time without taking public comment or examining the latest data,” she continued.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wild horses from the Onaqui wild horse herd frolic near Dugway, on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.