- Onaqui © Twildlife
Utah is home to one of the most famous herds of wild horses in America, the Onaqui. Named for the Onaqui Mountains, more than 500 horses roam free in rangeland just outside Tooele, roughly 60 miles from Salt Lake City. Tourists, photographers, horse lovers and filmmakers come from all over the world to see one of the enduring symbols of the American West in all their majesty, beauty and towering strength.
The Onaqui herd is extremely accessible. You can see these wild horses from State Road 36, and many of the herd are comfortable with humans coming close to observe them. In fact, people have become so familiar with the wild animals that they've given them names like Old Man, Dreamcatcher and One Ear—who looks like a fellow herd member bit off one ear tip.
Wild horse advocates—some of whom held a rally on Utah's Capitol Hill this summer with actress and animal lover Katherine Heigl—have tried but so far have been unsuccessful at preventing the "gather" operations conducted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), including the most recent roundup that began last month.
Charged with protecting America's wild horses and burros since 1971, BLM routinely rounds up the Onaqui herd in order to reduce its size, ostensibly for the horses' benefit. BLM officials say their 240,000-acre Herd Management Area (HMA) lacks the forage and water necessary to support all of the wild animals, particularly during ongoing drought conditions.
But advocates say the horses are in fine shape, and that there is no emergency to take these wild horses off their land. The roundup operations have also come under increasing fire amid reports of animal injuries, parent-offspring separations and unlawful sales of privately adopted horses to slaughterhouses.
The New West
Last month, the BLM collected 435 Onaqui horses over the course of five days—or more than 90% of the entire herd. Of that group, only 125 were later returned to their home range after some three weeks in a corral.
The BLM does not release details on their care during this time beyond disclosing that some of the animals were administered birth control and checked for their state of health. After saying poor health was a reason for the roundup, the BLM announced on the final day of the gather that the horses were "in good condition."
During the operation, one horse was reportedly killed due to a broken leg, and one foal—just a few months old—was separated from its mother and not returned to its home range.
As a sign of the times, the BLM doesn't use cowboys to gather the Onaqui herd. Instead, modern roundups rely on helicopters that chase wild horses for miles into corrals. Critics like Laura Leigh, founder of the Wild Horse Education nonprofit, say this is "abusive and tragic." Horses get injured and the young can get left behind at a running pace for hours.
BLM policy sets the Appropriate Management Level (AML) for the Onaqui range—which used to be as large as 500,000 acres—at a maximum of 210 wild horses. The bureau's goal over the next 10 years is to get the American wild horse and burro population in 10 Western states back down to 1971 levels, when the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act was passed.
That would mean a dramatic reduction of the nation's wild equines, down to 26,000 animals from a current number that ranges between 86,000 and 100,000.
Adding It Up
The debate over acceptable numbers of wild horses on America's public lands and the methods to keep their population growth in check has raged for decades. In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences wrote a blistering report saying BLM research on herd sizes was "not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change."
Other institutions like the Interior Board of Land Appeals and the U.S. District Court of Nevada have similarly questioned BLM's calculations of appropriate management levels.
Wild-horse advocates say there is no evidence the wild-horse population should be reduced to 26,000 animals. And some critics accuse the bureau of harboring an agenda to remove equines in order to promote the grazing of sheep and cattle, a claim that Riverton software engineer and Onaqui enthusiast Mike Poulter says is in line with facts on the ground.
"That is certainly what it looks like," Poulter said. "More and more cattle and sheep, especially sheep, [have] started showing up."
Poulter has been out to see the Onaqui herd more than 30 times in four years. During that period, he says he's noticed a significant uptick in the number of cattle and sheep that graze in the area.
"The cattle used to be closer to [Dugway] but now they can be found everywhere," he said, "and I never saw sheep until the last 12 months."
The BLM uses a metric called the Animal Unit Month, or AUM, that holds a cow and calf pair to be equal to one wild horse in terms of the amount of forage consumed. But Eric Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, said those calculations are flawed.
- A production still from the upcoming documentary Wild Beauty shows a helicopter rounding up Utah’s Onaqui wild-horse herd.
"The BLM is claiming 474 wild horses grazing year-round is too many, while authorizing cattle and sheep grazing that is the equivalent of 1,633 wild horses," he said.
The BLM has begun several other roundups of wild horses in the West, and lawsuits are being threatened as helicopters continue to chase them. Several wild horses have reportedly been killed during the Antelope Complex gather in Nevada, which began in mid-August, according to the nonprofit Return to Freedom. The BLM has also increased the number of horses they plan to round up this year from 11,00 to 17,000 nationwide, saying the change is due to a drought emergency.
The helicopter roundups have been a particular sticking point for advocates—one petition on Change.org calling for an end to the practice has 140,000 signatures. But not all animal rights groups are on board with the efforts to stop the roundups of wild horses. The Humane Society and ASPCA—the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—both supported a BLM policy called the "Path Forward," which was developed during the Trump administration. It increases budgets for wild horse roundups and perpetual corrals.
So far, the Biden administration has been silent on the issue, declining to respond to the outcry by roundup critics. The president's nominee to lead the BLM, Tracy Stone-Manning, has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. And new Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland—the first Native American to hold that position—has to date focused on department staffing, a pause on oil and gas leases on public lands and the horrific revelations from the practice of forcing native children into boarding school systems.
When the Interior Department moved its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, last year, only three employees left Washington to make the trip. Filling staff positions remains a challenge for the Interior department.
Adding to the timeliness of the issue is that 2021 is the 50th anniversary of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act. After witnessing wild horses going to slaughterhouses, the law was passed placing wild horses under federal protection. The act states, "Congress finds and declares that wild free roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the nation and enrich the lives of the American people."
In a prepared statement, BLM spokeswoman Kimberly Finch declined to provide information on the bureau's roundup planning documents and said that staffing shortages prevent the organization from fully responding to media requests.
"Most of what the average reader needs to know is in our news releases," she said.
To the Slaughter
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has called for an investigation into the BLM's Adoption Incentive Program (AIP), which offers grants of up to $1,000 to private citizens who agree to adopt a wild horse after it is rounded up by the bureau. The AIP program began during the Trump administration, and national reporting suggests many of the adopted horses end up at slaughterhouses, in an apparently unenforceable violation of the program's rules.
The BLM recently announced that it intends to reform the adoption program, and that the bureau will monitor the adoption process more closely to ensure the contracts participants sign are honored, including the prohibition on selling the horses and burros to slaughter. Wild-horse advocates have also pushed the SAFE Act (HR 3355), which would outlaw the exporting of horses to slaughterhouses.
Leigh, of Wild Horse Education, says the BLM's reform policy "has no new teeth in it and will not be enough to stop the slaughter."
The Onaqui wild horses not returned to their range from the recent roundup will be available for adoption in October. And animals that are not adopted will join 50,000 other formerly wild horses that have been corralled by the BLM indefinitely. The bureau's budget for the roundups and perpetual holding is reportedly $128 million per year, up from $28 million in 2018. The use of a helicopter reportedly costs as much as $100,000 per week.
Wild-horse advocates say they are turning their attention to raising money for horse adoptions and new land for sanctuaries. Groups like the Red Birds Trust and the Skydog Sanctuary are among the organizations behind those efforts.
In the meantime, the BLM continues to be peppered with lawsuits. Western Watersheds Project has sued the bureau 15 times, and Laura Leigh says she is most proud of her own 2017 lawsuit against the BLM, which successfully accused the bureau of abusing wild animals under its purview.
Anthony Marr, a Canadian physicist, wants to allow all the wild horses back on the land. He has proposed his own plans for reform, which he believes could protect the Onaqui herd while saving taxpayers roughly $80 million each year.
"Putting the wild horses back on the range will save us a lot of money," Marr said, "and be better for the environment."
Among the justifications for the ongoing roundup operations is the belief that wild horses are effectively an invasive species, brought to North America by Spanish explorers in the 15th century. But that sentiment is increasingly challenged by a school of thought that questions the pre-Columbian extinction of native equines.
Ross MacPhee, a paleontologist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, says DNA evidence suggests that some horses in North America survived the Ice Age, and that their descendants remain here today.
And Manda Kalimian, founder of the CANA Foundation and author of the forthcoming book, Born to Rewild, says wild horses are an integral part of "re-wilding" our public lands. In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Kalimian argues that horses are a great benefit to their environment and can even help to combat climate change.
"Wild horses don't destroy the range," she wrote. "They eat from the tops of grasses, not their roots, and can sense water below the surface and dig holes for it.
According to Kalimian, "horses are not the problem, the people are."
Alan Naumann works in the solar industry and is former chairman of the Utah Environmental Caucus. He is a board member of the nonprofit SLC Air Protectors and founded the Green News Utah blog.