Saving The Onaqui Pt. 3

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/

8 Comments on “Saving The Onaqui Pt. 3

  1. Thank you for the information! It is eye opening! Have you sent this info to the crappy politicians?? I just can’t understand why they want to kill off our national treasures, and let them live free!

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  2. They r doing this for the cattle barons who want the lands for themselves and MY OPINION the government gets paid for all the permits issued to the cattle barons. If I am wrong I am sorry for saving this. But as I said it is MY OPINION.

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  3. This is the best piece of writing, and the most informative and smart one I’ve seen so far on the subject. Thank you so much for sharing your insights! Note, one typo I caught, “And our local leaders are the perfect ones to make their voices herd.” Where “herd” should be “heard.”

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