Grace Kuhn: Roundups of wild horses are not the answer

Bureau of Land Management must give humane management a chance to work on Onaqui Mountain herd.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Horses from the Onaqui wild horse herd, about 60 miles southwest of Tooele, near Simpson Springs, Thursday, June 5, 2014.

Each year, thousands of tourists from around the world flock to the Onaqui Mountain area in Utah’s Tooele County to see and photograph wild horses. But soon it may be harder for them to spot a mustang. The federal government plans to take hundreds of these horses away.

Why? The U.S. Bureau of Land Management says a roundup is needed to preserve sage grouse habitat and restore land damaged by wildfires. But if that is the reason, why isn’t the BLM clamping down on the numbers of privately owned cattle and sheep that graze the same region? As usual, the government is placing the profits of ranchers ahead of the welfare of our nation’s wild horses.

The Onaqui herd numbers just 500-some mustangs, compared to 7,000-plus sheep and cattle allowed to roam the same region. In fact, the BLM allocates 83 percent of available forage in the Onaqui Mountains Herd Management Area to commercial livestock, while federally protected wild horses get just 17 percent.

If the planned roundup takes place this July, BLM will leave behind just 121 horses on the range. That’s a density of one horse per 1,985 acres. Good luck tracking one down for a snapshot.

But the roundup won’t just be bad for Utah’s eco-tourism economy. It will be bad for horses, too. Mustangs will be subjected to dangerous and sometimes deadly stampedes as they run terrified away from helicopters. Tiny foals and elderly horses will be chased down along with the fit. Horses are social animals, and the traumatic roundup will shatter close-knit bonds.

The removed horses will be sent to holding pens where they will be “processed” (branded, vaccinated, and stallions gelded), and put up for adoption. A small number will be adopted; most will be sent to holding pens or pastures for life.

The worse thing of all, though, is that all of this is preventable. Rather than spend millions to remove horses from public lands, the BLM could adjust the appropriate management level system that it uses to justify roundups and base its numbers on science rather than the private interests of the livestock industry. The government also could compensate ranchers to reduce their herd sizes or remove some of their animals.

Or, best of all, the BLM could continue and expand its partnership with the Wild Horses of America Foundation to manage the horses effectively and humanely on the range with the PZP fertility control vaccine. This approach is in line with the 2013 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, which provided a roadmap for the BLM to stop costly and inhumane roundups and removals and move forward with a scientific approach to wild horses.

The BLM should continue with this path and allow the PZP program to work. Given time and sufficient resources, it will.

Perhaps with a new federal administration that is less hostile to science, our cherished wild horses will be given the treatment they were promised more than 50 years ago when the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and declared these iconic animals “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” that are “an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”Please urge your current members of Congress to follow through on this promise and give our wild horses of Onaqui and across the West the treatment that they deserve.

Grace Kuhn

Grace Kuhn is the communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign and an avid traveler to Utah public lands.