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Scott Beckstead: The Onaqui horses of Utah deserve humane treatment

Our wild horses and burros have long captured the public imagination, and when the American people learned about the harassment and cruelty these iconic creatures had endured from “mustangers” — profiteers who captured the animals and sold them for pet food — they called on Congress to pass the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

As a preface to the legislation, Congress decreed that “wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in an area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”

Among the most beloved of all the wild herds are the famed Onaqui horses of the West Desert in Utah. Known for their rugged beauty and their ability to thrive in this forbidding high desert, the Onaqui have attracted admirers the world over. Some of them trek to Utah to gain a firsthand look, with a glimpse of Old Man, the grand patriarch stallion, sure to quicken their pulse. These photographers and other tourists boost the local economy and the horses have become the center of an ecotourism business without even trying.

Not alert to the economic benefits the horses provide, the Bureau of Land Management is planning a helicopter roundup of the Onaqui horses to commence in early July, intent on removing 300 from the range. The horses will be stampeded into traps, chased to the point of utter exhaustion, and some will be injured. Some are likely to die from their injuries, or worse, be killed by the BLM if they are injured, elderly or underweight.

New foals will be at special risk of injury and death. Family bands will be permanently torn asunder; proud stallions known by names like “Charger,” “Buck,” Goliath,” and “Moondrinker” will be separated from their families, castrated and consigned to defeat in a barren BLM feedlot. The agency plans to send the horses to a sad and uncertain future in BLM holding facilities, or making them available for adoption by unscrupulous profiteers, who under the agency’s Adoption Incentive Program, will receive a thousand dollars per horse from the BLM and then sell them later for slaughter.

The BLM is trumping up charges against the horses, falsely claiming the horses threaten the range. But to put the BLM’s position in perspective, while it claims 500 horses are too many for the range, the agency allows grazing on the range by over 26,000 cattle and sheep. In fact, if one were to drive out to the Onaqui Herd Management Area, they may see a handful of wild horses, but are far more likely to see hundreds or even thousands of sheep and cattle. The BLM tries to create alarm over 3,000 wild horses living in Utah, yet does nothing to address the effects of cattle and sheep, which according to the agency’s website number well over a million.

Thousands of taxpayers have called and emailed the Utah offices of the BLM to plead for the Onaqui horses. Even actress Katherine Heigl, who lives in Summit County and owns horses of her own, has joined with our organization in a public awareness campaign to stop the roundup. Judging from its public statements, though, the BLM is ignoring the American public, instead heeding the wishes of the corporate livestock industry, which wants all wild horses and burros removed as competition for forage.

As a descendant of Mormon pioneers and an alum of both Utah State and the University of Utah, I feel a deep connection to the Onaqui horses. Like so many others, I have marveled at incredible photographs of Onaqui stallions battling for supremacy, mares and foals resting peacefully among the wildflowers, and entire herds galloping as one across the desert landscape.

The Onaqui horses are important to Utah’s history, culture, and pioneer heritage. Instead of subjecting them to the terror, confusion and chaos of the helicopter roundups, we urge the BLM to use proven fertility control to manage them humanely on the range where they belong.

Scott Beckstead |

Scott Beckstead, Sutherlin, Oregon, is director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy.

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