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 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.
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.
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):
- 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.
- 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)
- Decrease the number of horses being gathered
- Opt for a more human round-up such as bait trapping
- 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.
- 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.
- Senator Romney (202) 224-5251 or via email: https://www.romney.senate.gov/contact
- Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall (801) 535-7704 email@example.com
- Salt Lake City Council (801) 535-7600 firstname.lastname@example.org
- Contact the American Wild Horse Campaign https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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 email@example.com
Tami Howell – (801) 977-4300 email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Follow Facebook pages such as Save the Onaqui Wild Horses for updates and news bulletins