The wild horses that roam the Onaqui Mountain range are federally protected under a unanimously passed act of Congress that declared them to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” that “enrich the lives of the American people.”
An estimated 586 wild horses live on more than 370 square miles (240,153 acres) of land known as the Onaqui Mountains Herd Management Area (HMA). The majority of this land is owned by the public and managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the Department of the Interior that is also charged with managing wild horses and burros protected under federal law.
Just an hour from Salt Lake City, this unique and accessible herd is the most visited and photographed wild horse population in the country. As such, it is an important ecotourism resource for the local area.
As early as July, the BLM intends to round up and remove 465 wild horses – or 80 percent of the Onaqui population – from their home on our public lands. These horses will be subjected to traumatic helicopter stampedes – tiny foals and elderly horses will be chased along with the fit for miles – that cause injury and sometimes death. The roundup will shatter the close-knit families and bonded friendships amongst horses in the herd, and these iconic symbols of freedom will lose their freedom - forever.
After the roundup, the 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. Their lives will remain in jeopardy as the BLM and its political allies continue to push for the mass slaughter of wild horses in holding facilities and on the range.
When it’s over, just 121 horses will be left on the Onaqui range – the low end of the 121-210 population limit BLM has imposed on the Onaqui herd. That’s a density of one horse per 1,985 acres!
The federally-protected Onaqui mustangs must share their habitat with privately-owned sheep and cattle that graze the public lands thanks to massive taxpayer subsidies. (Ranchers pay a fraction of market rate to graze livestock on public lands due to a large and controversial federal subsidy program that costs taxpayers at least half a billion dollars per year.)
On the Onaqui range, the BLM authorizes the annual grazing equivalent of about 1,070 cow/calf pairs or 5,350 sheep to graze in ten allotments. The low population limit that BLM has placed on mustangs in this area is a direct result of the federal giveaway of forage to commercial livestock interests.
The BLM claims the roundup of the Onaqui horses is needed to preserve sage grouse habitat and restore land damaged by wildfires. At the same time, the agency permits several thousand cows and sheep to graze on allotments in and around the HMA, with heavy concentrations of livestock grazing during winter and early spring – the most critical growth period for rangeland health. The BLM’s plan is to remove 80% of the Onaqui herd and not consider whether the reduction of livestock would help achieve the agency’s goal of preserving sage grouse habitat and restoring land damaged by wildfires.
Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars to round up publicly cherished wild horses and warehouse them in holding pens, the BLM should focus its resources on using fertility control to reduce population growth rates on the range and reduce population numbers as necessary over time. This approach is consistent with science, fiscal responsibility and the wishes of the American public.
Polls show that 80 percent of Americans want wild horses protected and humanely managed on our public lands, while just 29 percent want our public lands used for livestock grazing. The current population of wild horses can be accommodated through reductions to livestock grazing and maintained humanely with fertility control. It’s time for BLM to change its “business as usual” practices, and there is no better place to start than on the Onaqui range.