As of today there are 102 days left and counting before 400 of our Onaqui wild horses are removed from their home here in Utah’s west desert. 

The Utah BLM estimates there to be a total herd population of 475 horses not including 2021 foals.  This total encompasses the North herd, the South herd and horses which have wandered outside the HMA.  It was once thought that only 50 horses was needed to maintain genetic diversity, however more recent studies have shown this number to be much higher. (read more details here)  Assuming the current BLM population numbers to be correct, if 400 of 475 wild horses are removed that leaves 75 horses on the range for the HMAs 2 distinct herds: 37.5 horses for a north herd and 37.5 horses for a south herd. 

BLM then plans on handpicking 104 horses based on age, gender and ease with which to dart with equine fertility control to subsequently return to the range. 52 horses for the north, 52 horses for the south and if equally divided in genders that’s 13 mares and 13 stallions to each group. 

In a nutshell it can be assumed that after the July 2021 round-up is all said and done only 89 horses will be allowed to live in each section of the range respectively.  That’s a dangerously low level of horses to maintain genetic variation, herd structure and contribute to the future health & viability of the herd. 

Why remove so many? 

  • In laymen’s terms this is the number of horses (or burros) deemed appropriate to live on any federally managed HMA back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. 

It all comes down to HMA (Herd Management Area) and what the BLM has determined to be the AML (Appropriate Management Level) for that HMA.  The BLM is slated to remove thousands of horses and burros from public lands in the coming years based on a report submitted to congress at the end of 2020.  That report recommends the removal of 20,000 wild horses and burros each year for 3.5 years from HMAs throughout the United States.  A full copy of the report can be found here.

Where did the AMLs come from and how were they determined? 

  • In laymen’s terms they were randomly set when population numbers were nearing extinction and should be re-evaluated based on current and ongoing scientific studies.

With the enactment of the Wild Horse & Burro Act of 1971 the BLM was assigned with the task of establishing both a high and low population size deemed appropriate for each Herd Management Area. (https://www.nap.edu/read/13511/chapter/9#196). 

Unfortunately all those years ago when setting the AML’s thorough scientific research wasn’t conducted and hence in recent years both the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the 10th circuit court have rendered them meaningless.  The 2013 NAS report goes into detail stating that “The Wild Horses and Burros Management Handbook lacks the specificity necessary to guide managers adequately in establishing and adjusting appropriate management levels.”  And further that “How AMLs are established, monitored, and adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change.”

Can AMLs be changed?   

  • In laymen’s term = Yes.

 In chapter 7 pages 223-257 of the NAS report it is recommended that “BLM should also develop approaches for quantitatively distinguishing horse or burro use from livestock and wildlife uses of forage, riparian areas, and other resources to verify utilization partitioning between livestock, horses, burrow, and other herbivores.”  It goes on to state “… A scientific approach is needed to identify objectively the constraints on horse and burro population… The ecosystem might look different and function differently in the presence of more minimally managed equid populations from how it does with no or markedly reduced populations, but it may nevertheless be sustainable over time.”

This is in addition to their scientific finding that wild horse and burrow populations will self-limit over time as there is increased demand for forage and water and a reduced reproductive output of mares.

In 2016 the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the mustangs in the neighboring state of Wyoming.  “The appellate court has clearly affirmed two important issues – first that wild horse populations in excess of the BLM’s arbitrarily established ‘appropriate’ management levels do not equate with overpopulation, and second that the BLM is not required to remove wild horses from the range even if it determines an overpopulation exists,” Eubanks continued.  “Rather the agency has broad discretion to implement other management approaches, including implementation of fertility control to humanely reduce population growth rates and reduction in livestock grazing within HMAs.” 

So should the Utah BLM be moving forward with an aggressive plan to remove between 1,100 to 1,200 more horses and burros from federal lands in 2021 in addition to the over 2,000 animals they already removed in 2020?  If you’re using the comprehensive scientific data as they relate to these practices the answer would be No.

How does all this relate to the Onaqui? 

The current AML for the Onaqui HMA is set at 121-210 horses for 240,153 acres. 

Even at the high end that equates to over 1,000 acres per horse.  In a recent form email I received from BLM regarding the upcoming round-up they state that there is only “a 5-10% increase in population per year.”  This is a drastic difference when compared to the 20% population increase that Gus Warr, the head of Utah’s Wild Horse & Burro program, claimed as a justification for the July 2021 round-up in his live zoom meeting on March 2nd, 2021.

According to Mr. Warr the Utah BLM currently houses 5,500 horses in long-term off-range facilities.  At a cost of $5/horse/day for housing that’s a total of $27,500 per day or $10,037,500 per year.  Factor in the additional 2,000 horses Utah BLM plans to remove in 2021 that’s another  $10,000 per day or $$3,650,000 per year not including the cost of helicopters used in round-ups which run between $500-$800 PER HEAD. 

  • So for example the cost for the 2021 Onaqui Round up can be estimated to total between $200,000 and $320,000 just for the helicopters alone.
  • The cost for rounding up the 5,500 head of horses that are already in holding facilities realistically cost taxpayers between $2,750,000 and $4,400,000.

That’s between three million and five million dollars spent to remove horses and burros who were previously living self-sustaining lives in the wild.  

For more details on round-up costs, contracts and off-site holding facility costs click here.

If AML numbers can be adjusted and a scientific study can help to determine what current level of equid the HMAs can reasonably support then a moratorium should not only be put on the Onaqui roundup scheduled for July 2021, but the other roundups slated to place as well.  This is something that our Department of the Interior and newly appointed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has the ability to rectify – placing a moratorium on further removals until a science based approach is established and implemented.

In the interim another very viable and cost-effective solution to help maintain herd population growth in available in the form of an equine contraceptive known as PZP.  PZP is a dart administered to mares in the range and proven to be between 95-98% effective at preventing pregnancy.  Currently a PZP program is in place at the Onaqui HMA involving 24 trained volunteers and the cost per mare runs $30/year.  This program just started in earnest in 2019 with the darting of 135 mares (91 in the north herd and 44 in the south) and subsequently 165 total mares darted in 2020.

This PZP darting program has proven very effective in both the McCullogh Peaks HMA and Virginia Range HMA but needs time to fully reach it’s potential.  The Onaqui aren’t being given that time. 

More information on PZP programs and funding can be found in my previous blog here.

Local vs Federal Issue

There appears to be a broad level of misunderstanding as to who is responsible for the current levels of mismanagement of our wild horse and burro populations and who is responsible for rectifying this.  Can the Department of the Interior step in and place a moratorium on “gathers” until the scientifically flawed management policies and procedures are rectified?  Absolutely.  Can oversight hearings be scheduled to delve into the BLMs Wild Horse and Burro program to allow for science-based application and implantation?  Yes.

But this does not excuse the lack of investigation, intervention and action by local officials including City Council, County Council, Mayor, House of Representatives and Senators.  These local officials have the ability to protect our cities, counties, communities and the valuable resources that fall within.  The Onaqui wild horses being one of them.  The Onaqui are considered to be one of the most accessible and photographed while horse herds in the world. They are loved by countless people both locally and world-wide.  People from far reaches have visited our small rural communities bringing with them their business for our local hotels, local restaurants, local gas stations and local small businesses.

The Onaqui are worth far more to this rural community and beautiful state in the wild than they are being housed in captive pens at the expense to tax payers.  We are in a unique position to profit locally from these beautiful animals instead of having them viewed as a burden and an expense.  And our local leaders are the perfect ones to make their voices herd.  They have the ability to directly contact Senator Romney, who in turn can appeal to the Secretary of the Interior to place a stay on any future removal of the Onaqui horses (and others) until sound scientific studies have been received, AMLs adjusted accordingly and detailed local BLM management guides established.

Who to contact & how you can help

In addition to contacting the Department of the Interior Directly, please see your support to the list of local elected officials below who can directly speak up for our Onaqui Wild Horses and their protection for living in the wild.

Utah Senator Romney (202) 224-5251 or via email: https://www.romney.senate.gov/contact

District 2 State Representative Chris Stewart (202) 225-9730, (435) 364-5500 or (435) 627-1500 or via email https://stewart.house.gov/contact/

Tooele City Mayor Debbie Winn (435) 843-2104 dwinn@tooelecity.org

Tooele City Council Members:

Tooele County Council Members:

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall (801) 535-7704  mayor@slcgov.com

Salt Lake City Council (801) 535-7600 council.comments@slcgov.com

For a complete list of the NAS review Key Findings click here: https://wildhorseeducation.org/2021/03/02/lets-talk-nas-reviewblm-report/

One of the things I love most about my visits to the range is that they are always different.  Trying to understand all of the complex social and ecological dynamics for both the north and south Onaqui herds is honestly fascinating to me.  It’s like its own little horse soap opera and I find myself getting sucked in to it hook line and sinker.  For years the Onaqui have been one of the most photographed herds in the world and it’s very easy to see why.

Last week I was fortunate enough to be on the range for extended days with a wonderful tour guest who drove all the way from Texas to spend time with the herd after receiving news of the BLM’s announcement to round-up and remove 80% of them this coming July.  All our fingers are crossed that the Utah BLM will ultimately make the right decision and opt to forgo this round-up for a more humane method of population control such as equine fertility treatment known as PZP which has been proven to be 95-98% effective.  (Much more information is available about this alternative method by clicking here

However in the meantime local and out of state visitors alike are making the pilgrimage out the Onaqui HMA to spend whatever time they can with this cherished herd.

The day started out with a beautiful pastel sunset sprinkled among hazy scattered clouds and we managed to find the majority of the north herd on the mountainside peacefully grazing as the sun slowly emerged.  After a lovely 6 hours on the mountain we then ventured south where we were able to locate the rest of the north herd and eventually some special members of the south herd just past Simpsons Springs.  The decision was made to return to our starting point for sunset and so the drive back to Davis mountain began.

We’d only been there for a few minutes when I noticed some odd behavior in a band a couple hundred yards away.  The lead roan stallion Dude was on high alert and was chasing after any horse within a couple hundred yards and there was another black stallion who was also being unusually vigilant.  He was both acting aggressively towards Dude and also to any other interlopers who had the misfortune of grazing too close.   With these stallions swirling in circles then stopping to guard the rest of the group they definitely got my attention.

The more I watched I saw that the rest of the band had formed a very tight circle and were clustered together so closely it was difficult to distinguish one from another.  I have seen them position themselves in tight groups before when the winds start howling or when shielding small foals from the sun, but never to this extent.  The more I watched the more the overall behavior didn’t make any sense….. until it did. 

I had a hunch that a mare was giving birth and the rest of the band had surrounded her to protect her. Separating themselves by quite a distance from the majority of the norther herd.

I slowly began my decent down the hill to a spot where I could get a better view through my camera lens careful not to get too close and upset the agitated stallions even more.  Sure enough as the scene began unfolding clearly through the lens I saw a bay mare lying on her left side surrounded by the other horses.  She raised her head and looked to be straining as a young stallion of 2 years old nuzzled her softly.  Another young mare stood at her shoulder gently placing her hoof on her shoulder repeatedly in an attempt to give comfort.

At one point the mare began trying to stand, but just as quickly as she started to rise she was back down on her side again with her team of nanny’s continuing to protect and soothe.  10-15 minutes of labor passed and a brand new little Onaqui was welcomed into the world.  The whitish blue blob was the first thing I saw – this baby still covered in the amniotic sac.  The aunties immediately set about removing this and before I knew it the mare was also up and on her feet.

The band remained close and the stallions ever so vigilant while the foal was cleaned and momma began gently nuzzling him and tapping him with her front hoof to encourage him to rise.  His fur was soaking wet and filled with texture and I could just make out the little tips of his ears still bent from being tucked in the womb for the last 11 months. 

Slowly I backed away and returned up the hill to the rest of the herd to give this new family time to adjust.  The last thing I saw as we returned home for the evening was the new little colt with his head raised taking in his very first views of his new world and making unsuccessful attempts to learn how to use his new legs.

Leaving them at sunset was bittersweet, but I remained hopeful that I would find them again once morning came and learn if we had gotten a new little colt or filly and see how it has done through the night. 

As luck would have it very early the following morning after some quality time looking through the binoculars I was able to spot the family high up on the side of a mountain.  For a while I wasn’t able to locate the foal and my anxiety levels were rising by the minute. However as luck would have it he had just been resting and popped up out of the grass to follow mom and the rest of the band as they descended down the mountain towards a watering hole about a mile away.

Patience paid off and we took a seat in the open field and waited quietly as Dude brought his band slowly and methodically down the hillside. They then proceeded to stroll by us headed for a much needed drink.  After milling about at the waterhole the group then followed the same path back through the field where we remained and began grazing a short distance away.

 While we watched the new little colt affectionately nicknamed “Quinn” (OQ372brS) nursing from mom (mare OQ354bM) and taking in views of his new world.  This beautiful little fella should grow up to be a strong, healthy, wild bay roan just like Dude (OQ80brS) and within 24 hours of being born was already quick on his feet, curious and able to climb mountains with the rest of the band.

I am so grateful that not only was I able to witness such a unique and special moment for these wild ones, but I’m grateful to be able to share that with a guest who loves the horses as much as I do.  And I’m also grateful that the Onaqui in particular are so gracious in allowing us humans into their lives and families to further understand and appreciate all that they are and all that they have to offer. 

It will be nothing short of a tragedy if the round-up currently scheduled for July 12-22nd takes place.  This new family will be chased by helicopter for 10 days straight along with all the others.  They will be rounded up into livestock trailers and kept in pens over in Delta, Utah.  From there they will be separated and some kept in long-term housing, some adopted, maybe 1 or 2 returned to the range if they’re “lucky.”  But whatever happens their time of living as a family will be over.

During these round-ups horses are injured, horses are euthanized, babies hooves are worn off from running because they’re much too young and their hooves too soft to be able to withstand the chase.  It’s so critical that voices be herd in support of leaving these beloved horses in the wild to continue to draw national and international attention from wild horse lovers world-wide.

What Can You Do To Help

It’s imperative that the Utah elected officials recognize the local significance of the upcoming BLM actions regarding rounding up this valuable and cherished herd of horses.  Humane herd management and population control should be recommended, supported and commended and there are far better ways to manage the Onaqui horses than to remove them entirely. 

PLEASE take a moment to send a note to the following to stress the importance for the local business people, visitors and the Utah tourist industry of promoting, embracing and humanely managing this unique herd in the wild.

As always as more information becomes available I will try to share in a third blog to help get the word out to save our wild ones.

  • Contact President Biden and Interior Secretary Haaland to put a stop to the proposed 20,000 horses and burros slated to be removed from public lands. It’s a huge loss of our national heritage as well as an excessive drain on taxpayer resources and money to make wild horses live their lives in government pens.
  • Contact Gus Warr and Tami Howell at the Salt Lake City BLM who currently manage our Wild Horse & Burro program

Gus Warr –(801) 539-4057  email gwarr@blm.gov

Tami Howell – (801) 977-4300  email thowell@blm.gov

  • Follow Facebook pages such as Save the Onaqui Wild Horses for updates and news bulletins

The photo you see above is of a brand new baby only minutes old born to Onaqui mare OQ354bM who travels in a band with the band stallion Dude (a gorgeous and muscular bay roan).  I was lucky enough to watch this mare in labor while the other mares gathered around in a tight circle gently cleaning her, sniffing her nose and putting their hooves on her in an attempt to comfort her.  As soon as the little colt was born all of the “aunties” joined in to help clean him and protect him while he came to take his first look at his new little mustang life in the West Desert.  He has been nicknamed Quinn (OQ372brS) and the hope is that he will live a long life wild and free on this range.

Elephants & Horses

As a little kid I was all about elephants.  I don’t even have a reasonable explanation of how or why this might have developed, but I adopted them whole heartedly as my very own spirit animal.  As an adult my fascination with them continued to grow until I made the leap and decided I simply had to see them in person. 

I then spent a few years diving into all things elephant.  Asian elephants and African elephants both.  If there’s a book or scientific study on them I’ve probably read it and I spent time intermittently in Thailand volunteering at various very hands on elephant sanctuaries which put us to work preparing their meals, bathing them, cleaning their sleep areas, creating enrichment activities and planting new crops so the sanctuaries could be closer to their goal of being self-sustaining.  After Thailand I then traveled to an award winning private game reserve in South Africa dedicated to conservation and education where we got to be with the wild herd and collect data in an ongoing study about their foraging habits. 

Fortunately for the elephants their plight has become well-known and the damage to the overall health and continuity of the herd well-documented in cases of poaching, relocating or loss of family members.  Their social structure, familial bonds and intelligence is something I believe we’ve only touched the surface to understanding and yet already we have been able to prove how deep it runs.

The Onaqui wild horses remind me of elephants. Except that unlike the wild elephants the true depth of the dimensions of wild horse herd dynamics, bonds and social complexity hasn’t been given even a small fraction of publicity or research it probably deserves. 

When the wild herds managed by the BLM are done so by way of helicopter roundups instead of humane fertility control methods such as PZP it is not only traumatizing for the horses psychologically, but it’s ripping apart family bands, compromising genetic diversity and throwing the natural balance of the herd off-kilter. The same as it would if you randomly rounded up mass quantities of elephants in the same manner. 

The BLM’s Onaqui round-up is scheduled for July 12-22nd of this year and with it the continuity of the herd’s current structure and dynamics are at grave risk of being destroyed. 

The round-up also brings an immediate loss of opportunity for broad educational and local economic development as it relates to this special population of horses

Healthy Herd Populations = Healthy Local Economy

The closest small rural town to the Onaqui HMA is called Tooele with a local population of 35,000.  Tooele has your basics such as 2 grocery stores, gas stations, Walmart, Home Depot and a splash of restaurants offering various cuisines but by no means is it a thriving metropolis with the charm or attractions to draw visitors from worldwide locations.  However what is does offer is easy access to view the Onaqui – and year round at that.

Another great thing about the little town of Tooele is that it’s an easy 30 minute drive from the Salt Lake City International Airport.  Thus offering unparalleled access for wild horse viewing to anyone flying into Salt Lake City whether it be to hit the slopes in Park City or Alta or to drive up to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons.  The Onaqui horses are thriving within the vast HMA (herd management area) within a bowl of different mountain ranges lending to gorgeous scenery, camping and hiking. Since Tooele is the stopping off point before heading out to the west desert the economic impact of the Onaqui herd for the town is significant.

Visitors all year long come to Tooele to fill up their gas tanks, grab meals at the local restaurants and grocery stores and most often book a room at one of the four hotels such as the Best Western or Holiday Inn.  The Best Western in fact sees so many visitors for wild horse viewing that they offer a discounted rate per night of stay if you’re here for that reason.

The Utah BLM is proposing removal of 400 Onaqui horses from the range due to what they claim is water shortage, food shortage and overall condition of the herd.  Meanwhile anyone driving through the this range passes countless domestic cattle and sheep grazing and watering on the same land that BLM claims does not have enough food to support the resident wildlife – including horses. 

It’s indisputable that cattle and sheep need to eat too and ranching is a long embedded way of life for many, but it’s definitely not contributing to the local tourist economy the way that the wild horses are able to do.  I don’t see many folks willing to plan a family vacation or travel out of state to Tooele so they can spend the day viewing and photographing domestic livestock in the Onaqui HMA.

These horses are so popular than in only 18 days since the announcement of the removal of 80% of the horses I’ve received communication from supporters in 9 different countries and countless states within the US asking what they can do to help. 

This herd is special. 

And this herd is loved. 

And this herd is very important to our small local towns and the Utah economy. This herd is also very behaviorally unique compared to other wild horse herds and if given the chance can give us very valuable insight and scientific data into the natural lives and bonds of wild horses.

PZP and Its Use in the Onaqui Herd

Everyone who loves these horses I feel confident will be the first to stand up and advocate for their health, well-being and safety.  Running them for 10 days straight by helicopter is not the way to accomplish any of these things but administering equine contraception such as PZP darts allows for successful management of the overall population count and also keeps the family and social structures intact.  BLM has emphatically stated that there is no budgetary issue when it comes to paying the cost of $30/injection/year for mares and there are currently 24 trained but unpaid volunteers which administer the darts so paying for the man hours isn’t an issue for them either.

BLM lists the current population on the range not including 2021 foals to be 475.  In 2019 241 horses were rounded up via helicopter and 2 were killed in the process.  With that in mind, these are the numbers of PZP administered:

2017 – 27 north mares, 15 south mares.  42 Total

2018 – 29 north mares, 24 south mares.  53 Total

2019 – 91 north mares, 44 south mares.  135 Total

2020 – BLM stated in a public zoom meeting approximately 150 mares total were darted and it primarily focused on the north herd.

Based on these numbers it is not realistic to expect that the benefit of the PZP injections would truly be realized at such an early date.  PZP has been found to be 95-98% effective except for in horses that are non-responders of which do occur but in a very small percentage of darted mares.  The Onaqui herd needs to be managed humanely and via methods such as PZP rather than simply removed for convenience and housed in pens which end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars over the life of a horse.

PZP is extremely cost effective.  It’s easy to administer.  There are currently 24 trained individuals who volunteer their time to dart the herd therefore saving BLM both time and money.  This herd is of huge benefit to the local economy and draws visitors from both out of state as well as out of the country.  Their tolerance for human interaction and ease of access makes them as asset to the state and locals not a burden and they should be spared from the inhumane roundup and instead be allowed to serve as ambassadors for the state and a historic relic of the old Wild West.

More specific information about PZP and herd management can be found in my previous blog by clicking here.

What Can You Do To Help

It’s imperative that the Utah elected officials recognize the local significance of the upcoming BLM actions regarding rounding up this valuable and cherished herd of horses.  Humane herd management and population control should be recommended, supported and commended and there are far better ways to manage the Onaqui horses than to remove them entirely. 

PLEASE take a moment to send a note to the following to stress the importance for the local business people, visitors and the Utah tourist industry of promoting, embracing and humanely managing this unique herd in the wild.

As always as more information becomes available I will try to share in a third blog to help get the word out to save our wild ones.

  1. Please contact the following and express your support at keeping the Onaqui herd healthy and wild while ensuring that they are humanely managed on the HMA.
  1. Utah Senator Romney (202) 224-5251 or via email: https://www.romney.senate.gov/contact
    1. Tooele City Mayor Debbie Winn (435) 843-2104 dwinn@tooelecity.org
    2. Tooele City Council Members:
  1. Justin Brady – jbrady@tooelecity.org
    1. Melodi Gochis – mgochis@tooelecity.org
    2. Tony Graf – tgraf@tooelecity.org
    3. Ed Hansen – ehansen@tooelecity.org
    4. Maresa Manzione – mmanzione@tooelecity.org
  • Contact President Biden and Interior Secretary Haaland to put a stop to the proposed 20,000 horses and burros slated to be removed from public lands. It’s a huge loss of our national heritage as well as an excessive drain on taxpayer resources and money to make wild horses live their lives in government pens.
  • Contact Gus Warr and Tami Howell at the Salt Lake City BLM who currently manage our Wild Horse & Burro program

Gus Warr –(801) 539-4057  email gwarr@blm.gov

Tami Howell – (801) 977-4300  email thowell@blm.gov

  • Follow Facebook pages such as Save the Onaqui Wild Horses for updates and news bulletins

Saving the Onaqui

When I started this blog I was so excited not only to be able to share my images of the wild ones but also to share the stories behind them.  That’s the thing I’ve always loved so much about photography is that I’m able to capture that one little moment frozen in time and preserve it.  Memories are so important and I’ve seen too often that eventually they’re all we will have left.

I was completely oblivious to the storm that was brewing on the horizon and threatening to destroy the Onaqui families I have come to love so much.  Exactly 10 days ago I got the news that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had given notice they planned to remove nearly 300 of the horses from the Herd Management Area (HMA).  I remained in disbelief and held hope that somehow the information had been misconstrued.  Then on the 2nd of March I attended the BLM meeting which addressed the removal of the wild horses and confirmed that 296 horses are slated to be rounded up using helicopters beginning July 12th and ending July 22nd, 2021.

The Horses

The Onaqui wild horses have lived in the valleys bordering the Onaqui Mountains here in Utah since the late 1800s.  They are visible from many spots along a lengthy stretch of the Pony Express route and are a historic icon and reminder of the Wild West. The horses live in two distinct groups approximately 15 miles apart – one at the south end of the HMA near the Simpson Springs campground and one at the north end of the range near Dugway Proving Grounds Army base.   

According to BLM’s own website the horses “are in good condition” and anyone who visits the herd can easily verify that.  The HMA spans across 205,394 acres and is 321 square miles total which is a desolate, remote desert environment.  The only civilization close to the range is the Dugway Proving Grounds Army base. (https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/herd-management/herd-management-areas/utah/onaqui-mountain

In 2017 BLM reported that there were 450 wild horses in the Onaqui HMA and in 2019 241 of those horses were removed via helicopter round-up. An additional 2 horses were killed during that same round-up.  This would leave approximately 207 horses on the range if using BLM’s numbers.   American Wild Horse campaign vehemently opposed the 2019 round-up in the Onaqui HMA which you can read about here: https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/media/two-sides-onaqui-mountain-wild-horse-population.  They also spoke publically at the BLM meeting on March 2nd of this year however their future plans of involvement have not yet been made clear. 

The Issues

All sides of this issue can agree I think that maintaining a healthy wild herd genetically, physically and mentally (keeping bands in tact) are of the utmost importance. This can be managed in a far more humane and cost effective way than a massive round-up which removes 400 of 475 animals.  It can be achieved by implementing a proactive PZP program as has been proven effective with the McCullough Peaks herd in Wyoming among others.  (https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/partnerships/McCullough-Peaks) This PZP program administered by F.O.A.L in Wyoming has saved taxpayers roughly $6 million dollars over the past 9 years in the costs of long term holding for horses taken in a gather.  That’s just for one herd.

One doze of the equine inoculation PZP costs approximately $27.00 and is administered via dart in the field.  Fertility treatments start for mares at 9 months of age and repeat annually until they are 6 years of age at which point the inoculation is skipped so the mare can add to the genetic diversity of the herd.  Once she foals the PZP is resumed.  Assuming the average life of a horse in the wild is around 20 years old the cost of PZP for each mare would be a maximum of $513.00.  

Compare that to the cost of housing this same mare in off range facilities which is stated to be $2,000 per year per horse.  The life span of a wild horse in captivity is increased to an estimated 25 years.  So assuming a mare is captured at age 5 in a gather the cost to taxpayers now becomes $40,000 for that one horses versus $513.00.  

The current plan to capture 400 of the Onaqui Wild horses is also a huge threat to genetic diversity.  BLM plans to reintroduce 104 of these 400 horses captured back to the range.  These horses returned will be handpicked depending on age, gender and the female’s tolerance to being darted with PZP.  Of these 104 horses 52 mares will be treated with PZP. 

Taking into consideration that the Onaqui herd maintains itself in two distinct bands, the north and the south, which do not co-mingle, only returning such small numbers of horses to the range compromises the integrity of health and dynamics of the herd. The minimum number of animals in a herd to allow for genetic diversity and healthy breeding has been said to be 100.  With such low numbers post round-up and inevitable destruction of their familial bonds and social structure disastrous results seem imminent.  

The average reproductive rate per year of wild horses without PZP is 14.8% according to the Science and Conservation center in Montana.  It has been shown that this reproductive rate skyrockets after gathers to as high as 50%.  This is called a compensatory reproduction rate and happens because the herd feels the population threat and responds by increasing their rate of production.  Hence why PZP is a far better method of herd management than massive gathers such as this one.  

While on the topic of reproductive rate it has also been shown that wild horse populations faced with a decreased food and water supply such as BLM claims is plaguing the Onaqui horses actually self-correct with a decrease in their rate of population to adjust for these environmental factors.

For the 296 Onaqui Wild horses BLM proposes to gather @ $2,000/horse to house in off range facilities that is a cost to tax payers of $592,000 annually.  Versus the cost of PZP to 200 mares @ $27/dose = $5,400/year.  That is a difference of $586,600 annually.    

Assuming the average horse will survive to be 25 years old in an off-range facility and assuming the average age of a horse captured is 10 years old here is the difference in cost:  

  • Cost of gathering 296 horses: $8,880,000  
  • Cost of administering PZP: $81,000  

So not only can we be saving the American taxpayers $8,799,000 by forgoing this gather to pursue a more diligent PZP program, we can also be reaping the benefits by those same taxpayers who spend their money in the tourism industry supporting the local economy and businesses when they come into town to visit this wildly popular herd.  

The Options

Because of the report prepared by the BLM and submitted to Congress under the previous administration 20,000 wild horses and burros are threatened with removal from HMA’s per year for the next 3.5 years. That is double the animals which have been removed from public lands in years past.

The reasons for removal of the Onaqui horses are stated to be “AML/Outside the HMA, water issues, forage issues.”  Gus Warr also stated during the BLM public meeting on March 2nd that removal can occur at the request of private land owners.   We have had a very dry winter here in Utah and the horses have been getting their hydration from snowfall and runoff up to this point.  There are also 3 watering holes that are man-made and connected to wells that I’m aware of which the horses drink from during the hot, dry summer months.

PZP is paid for currently by BLM because it is a budgeted item.  It has been made clear that lack of budget is not the reason for this round-up.  Further, volunteers are in place to administer the equine inoculation which helps take the burden of manpower off the shoulders of the BLM.

Some reasonable alternatives to consider may include the following (in no particular order):

  1. Postpone the round-up until more scientific research can be gathered as to the nutritional needs of this herd of horses and access to food which will meet those needs.  To include an independent evaluation.
  2. Increase the amount of PZP given to mares in both the North and South herds and allow for time for this population control method to be proven.  (PZP is shown to be 91-98% effective at preventing pregnancy in mares in other wild herds)
  3. Decrease the number of horses being gathered
  4. Opt for a more human round-up such as bait trapping
  5. Drop grass hay on the range intermittently if body conditions become cause for concern

Worst case scenario if this round-up continues as scheduled we will need to find suitable adopters for the horses captured and ideally will try to keep family structures and/or social bonds intact. 

What Can You Do To Help

Believe me I ask myself this every day.  All day.  I’ve been thinking so much my brain actually hurts.

I will continue to share verified information and status updates as they become available.  I have had a great relationship personally with our local BLM office to date and would love to keep it that way so I’m definitely advocating for a solution where the horses are allowed to live their best lives in the wild and whatever outside help is needed to see that this happens can be coordinated.

  1. Please contact the following and express your support at keeping the Onaqui herd healthy and wild while ensuring that they are humanely managed on the HMA.
    1. Senator Romney (202) 224-5251 or via email: https://www.romney.senate.gov/contact
    1. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall (801) 535-7704  mayor@slcgov.com
    1. Salt Lake City Council (801) 535-7600 council.comments@slcgov.com
  2. Contact the American Wild Horse Campaign https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/
  3. Reach out to equine rescues in your local area to let them know about this upcoming roundup and see if they would be interested in adopting some of these wonderful horses
  4. Contact President Biden and Interior Secretary Haaland to put a stop to the proposed 20,000 horses and burros slated to be removed from public lands. It’s a huge loss of our national heritage as well as an excessive drain on taxpayer resources and money to make wild horses live their lives in government pens.
  5. Reach out to local news agency’s in the Salt Lake City area in support of humanely managing the Onaqui horses in the wild and forgoing the round-up in July.
  6. If you live in the area and know anyone willing to lease land where rounded-up Onaqui may be kept once adopted that’s great to know!
  7. Contact Gus Warr and Tami Howell at the Salt Lake City BLM who currently manage our Wild Horse & Burro program

Gus Warr –(801) 539-4057  email gwarr@blm.gov

Tami Howell – (801) 977-4300  email thowell@blm.gov

  • Follow Facebook pages such as Save the Onaqui Wild Horses for updates and news bulletins

greys

There’s just something about those greys. Some may appear to have more of a true grey coloring while others fade so much with age they turn nearly white. It’s the fading and aging that really gets me. It gives such a distinguished look. Something almost regal. And the way the light catches and dances off manes and tails – especially as thunderstorms approach with those backlit dark midnight hues approaching.

I almost hate to play favorites because I think that all the wild ones should be given the spotlight to help people identify with them and come to know them personally even if they don’t have the ability to do it first hand. However lately I just can’t seem to help myself but to try to find a bachelor stallion called Maverick (OQ237gs) who spends his time in the southern part of the range with 3 other stallions, one of which is Eclipse (OQ174zS) a foot loose and fancy free young black stallion who has a jovial nature and mostly likes to “horse” around with anyone who’s willing.

Maverick by contrast is much more subdued and seems to be like the big brother of the group. Quiet, keeping a watchful eye out, and willing to step in if someone gets too rough with his friends. Often when I find him he’s with the rest of the southern herd but always off to the outskirts a bit just calmly standing taking it all in. He seems to get amused when Eclipse or one of his other two bachelor stallion buddies start kicking their heels up to play but never quite amused enough to join in.

Some of my favorite images to date are of Maverick because he has such a presence about him. It takes an above average amount of patience to catch him in a natural pose because he has a bad habit of standing with what looks like a stink eye expression and his ears slightly pinned. At first I didn’t know what to make of him, but the more time I’ve spent now I just accept that more often that not he kind of is just annoyed. I can appreciate that because if I had to be around other humans 24×7 I’d definitely be mostly annoyed too.

But I personally think the most beautiful thing about this horse is that when he stops glaring and starts going about his business doing regular horse things he will absolutely take your breath away. Especially on those days when the winds are downright ripping through the range and his mane and tail are equally as uncontrolled. It’s one of those moments where you know this is exactly how it should be and how it should look.

Wild and free.

Choices

I can’t ever begin to count how many times over the years I’ve heard the saying “choose your battles wisely.” I think as we all get older and more seasoned at life you realize this is a critical lesson to learn. But in the meantime we all dive headfirst into choices that in hindsight probably weren’t best fork in the road to take.

Last week was brutally cold on the range and I’m not even saying that as a girl who’s spent the last 14 years in the tropics and up to this point have been nearly hypothermic when it got down to 68 degrees. It was just bone chilling, biter cold. I’ll go out on a limb and give it credit for being in the upper 30’s which in and of itself isn’t a big deal until you factor in the whipping winds that tear through the valley and assault everything in it. Including me. Including the horses.

It was another long drive out to the very southern borders of the Onaqui range where the drifts of snow are still prominent and make it look like a crafty way of abstract painting the sandy desert white. The roads were clear and the skies were filled with valley haze and brooding clouds sat on top of the surrounding mountains. The low-lying sage was rustling and small dust devils occasionally blew by.

I had a long walk of nearly a mile out into the middle of nowhere desert before I finally found the whole herd together milling about and unsettled. The winds always seem to get the horses aggravated and they stampede and spar in a haphazard and relatively disorganized fashion compared to their normal behavior. This day they were all split up in bands like usual, but staying in relatively close proximity. The soft light provided for stunning backdrop shooting in any direction and I tried to take advantage of it as long as I could keep feelings in my fingers.

The image above is a part of a much a larger set which is a great example of choices. Even horses have them.

The bay stallion on the left of the frame was resting seemingly peacefully in the middle of his band as was Dash, the roan stallion on the right of the frame (OQ220brS). I didn’t notice anything except that the bay all of the sudden became very alert with a slight tilt of his head and his ears perked forward. I was distracted by a younger stallion in the group so I wasn’t too focused on his band stallion but noticed the younger stallion shift his attention. The bay took all of two or three steps and then bolted right in front of me where the Dash came out to accept the challenge.

To his credit, Dash could have ended the fight a lot worse than he did. Although the photos look dramatic, he only gave his challenger a meaningful nip on the cheek and when the bay stallion faltered and fell at his feet he didn’t push, Dash simply waited for him to get back up where they had one final head shaking exchange before each returned to their families.

In hindsight I’m sure the bay stallion realized his poor choices as he was laying at Dash’s feet and maybe in the future he will think a little longer before he tries to pick that battle again.

Photos below are some of the highlights from the rest of the sequence – beginning to end. Enjoy!

The Challenge

Eclipse (#OQ174zS) chases a fellow stallion through the West Utah desert.

It was a rather brisk, but dry day late last December when I decided to venture out to the range to try to find the Onaqui wild horses. It had been a couple days since I was out exploring the range and I couldn’t help but wonder if they had changed locations and if the northern part of the herd had decided to come out of hiding.

With a hazy layer of clouds settling in over the surrounding mountains it provided for beautifully diffused light filtering in here as the mild breezes guided the haze to a place more of it’s liking. The pass was still filled with a couple inches of snow from a recent storm but the rest of the range was remarkably dry without much indication that moisture had ever passed through.

Dropping down into the north end of the range there was still unfortunately no sign of the northern herd (Davis Mountain Group) and it’s now been several weeks since I’ve spotted them more than once at sunset as they briefly emerged from beside Davis Mountain. All 150+/- of them. I pressed on to the south toward Simpson Springs and beyond where I’d been having success in locating the southern group of horses. Although smaller in number they’re still equally diverse in appearance and put on a good show for capturing some really stunning images.

I took out my binoculars and after a few minutes of scouting was able to locate the herd far off in the distance, deep south toward Fish Springs. I eventually pulled up even with them and squeezed off to the side of the road before starting the trek on foot to get out to where they were. The seemed very content in their current location just resting, grazing and getting hydration from tiny patches of snow that had been blown under the sage days earlier.

I had a good half mile walk ahead of me and by the time I finally reached them I was able to identify almost all of the members I’ve come to be so fond of. Except for one. There is one particular horse that I’ve become convinced actually might want to put me in the ground. I’m chuckling as I type this which is I think atleast a good sign.

The image above is called The Challenge not because of what you’ probably think. At first glace it appears the young black stallion with the baldface in the back (Eclipse #OQ174zS) is challenging the stallion in the front. But that’s not the case. These two young stallions were “horsing around” when the front stallion who I haven’t yet been able to identify but do have a couple choice nicknames for, decided to tear straight for me with Eclipse on his heels. They both raced past me about 15 feet away then continued to play wrestle at a more comfortable distance while their buddy Maverick (#OQ237gS – grey stallion pictured below) looked on.

Eclipse was born in 2017 and has always had a really pleasant, mild demeanor in addition to being a very handsome horse model. This new stallion is equally beautiful but much more foul tempered. For a couple weeks now he will leave his mare to tussle with the nearby bachelor bands made up of either Maverick and Eclipse or a stunning paint nicknamed Jasper (#OQ137bpS who I lovingly call Romeo).

Without fail after these friendly jousts he seems to not be able to help himself from coming after me to prove a point. I’m still trying to determine if that point is that he hates all humans or if I’m just extra special. I’m guessing soon enough he’ll make that clear.

It doesn’t matter how wide of a berth I give him he’ll still charge. Usually in this situation waving your arms and backing slowly away to give them additional space immediately relieves the tension. Not with this guy. That just pisses him off more and he comes after me again with renewed vigor. There have only been two tactics proven effective…. (1) if another stallion known as Sparrow (#OQ211zS who I affectionately call The Sheriff) decides to intervene on my behalf which he has done a couple times now – thanks buddy! or (2) if I start swearing like a sailor and take a couple steps towards him instead of backing away. Apparently even the horses know when certain words are being spewed the humans aren’t playing around.

For the record I much prefer option 1 over option 2.

I’m looking forward to the days the weather warms up a bit and the horses return to their normal (and more easily accessible) stomping grounds but in the meantime I just try to keep a keen eye out for my new nemesis and enjoy the company of all the other sweet tempered and patient wild horses out on the range.

To enjoy more images of the Onaqui Wild Horses click on this link.

From the beginning

2020. The year of change for many.

If someone would have told me in February while I was struggling through heaps of mud and over volcanic boulders in the high elevation rainforests of Rwanda and Uganda searching for gorillas that only a month later my beloved island would close down with National Guard patrolling everywhere closing highways or that all major airlines except for one would have cancelled their contracts to fly to/from the neighboring Hawaiian islands it would have seemed like a fictional horror movie. But then it happened.

Businesses closed. Many forever. Tourists were all but banned from entry for 9 months. Cost of transportation of goods to neighbor islands via barge went up 46% and planes still weren’t flying. Even between islands.

The first couple months I made a point to try to do something positive each day. Mainly exercising on a favorite forest hike or going for a paddle. Fortunately exercise was always something deemed as “essential” and thus allowed, atleast on Maui. I took my cameras along and snapped images on the now deserted beaches and underneath the pristine offshore waters where boats no longer frequented. I started writing a blog to chronical the daily changes in rules and regs and how it was impacting the local people and economy. It also served as a way to post lots of wonderful images around the island to bring a little aloha back to friends and clients lives who were missing the islands dearly.

I had a trip scheduled the first week of August to a gorgeous but remote costal area of Alaska to camp and photograph brown bears which I’ve done many times. It was looking favorable that plans would prevail despite numerous airline cancellations. But then we got word 3 weeks prior to takeoff that the campground would not be opening for the season. The trip was now an impossibility.

Considering the only airline flying in and out of Maui during the pandemic was Delta my options for re-routing were limited to say the least and changing dates wasn’t in the cards. They had four flights a week to and from OGG so you chose your itinerary with care.

On a whim I remembered hearing about the Onaqui Wild Horses not far from Salt Lake City. As fate would have it the Salt Lake Airport was probably one of the only airports in the country I felt confident I could fly in and out of through LAX without fear of getting stuck without an option to get home.

One of my Alaska travel/photographer buddies drove down from Montana to meet me at the Salt Lake City airport and we headed out to the West Desert to photograph wild mustangs instead of bears for 10 days. We were fortunate enough to get a room at the Dugway Army Base hotel that borders the range (that panning out is still a minor miracle itself) and so for 10 days dawn ’til dusk were spent in the scorching heat up to 108 degrees with billowing dust and sometimes gale force wind blasts. Thousands of images were captured and an idea was born.

I began to wonder if all this talk of wildlife guiding over the past several years might be something I should actually pursue. It had come up many times to guide photo tours in various regions of the US and beyond but for one reason or another it just wasn’t feasible. Until now. My home as I know it was slowly being decimated by more and more closures. I wasn’t getting but a smidge of my regular work and starting over for a third time on the same island just wasn’t something I was willing to do.

Fast forward 6 weeks and a plan was hatched. I boarded the same Delta plane and back to Utah I came the last week of September. I had put my house on Maui up for sale on a hunch and gave myself 10 days to decide if I could make the desert my new home base. Somehow in those 10 days I managed to buy a new home, meet a wonderful realtor turned friend, open bank accounts, get PO Boxes and fall even more in love with the wild horses than I imagined. I was absolutely terrified but the ball had been set in motion.

Within 4 days of returning to Maui I was under contract to sell my place and boxes were being packed. I spent all the time I could soaking up island hikes and ocean vibes while working on the daunting process of moving my existing photography business (A Place In Time Photography) and creating a brand new business to provide private guided photography tours for guests to experience the Onaqui Wild Mustangs for themselves.

Just like that Wild Horse Photo Safaris was born.

I’ve been so blessed to have a smooth transition into my new town and my new home and have already logged more hours on the range than anyone would ever think possible. I’ve worked tirelessly to launch a new brand of Fine Art Creations from my images captured in the field. It is my mission to both help raise awareness into the plight of the wild horses and also to capture their uniqueness and strong spirits through the images and artwork I create. The only way I can truly accomplish this is by spending extremely long hours getting to know individual members of the herd and gaining their trust so that I can move with and around them with ease without causing any disruption to photograph their most true emotions.

So I welcome you and thank you for reading this far! I am so excited to be able to share new images and stories here depicting these gorgeous animals and their lives playing out wild and free on the Onaqui Wild Horse HMA (Herd Management Area) in Western Utah.

All direct inquiries are welcome regarding the horses, tours, artwork or collaborations.

Mahalo Nui Loa,

Jen