Helicopter rounding up wild horses in a cloud of dust

Photo by Erik Molvar/WWP

In July, the Bureau of Land Management rounded up the vast majority of Utah’s Onaqui wild horse herd. Pressed by a lawsuit, the Bureau’s Salt Lake Field Manager testified under oath that an emergency roundup was necessary because wild horses were in poor and declining health and would need to be euthanized if left in the wild. After removing the majority of the Onaqui herd from the federal lands, the agency admitted publicly that its narrative had been false: The captured Onaqui horses were in good body condition; there was plenty of forage on their Herd Management Area (HMA) to sustain the entire herd through the drought.

Under the Wild and Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act, the Bureau of Land Management is required to manage wild horse populations to maintain a “thriving natural ecological balance.” For each wild horse population, the agency sets Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) to meet this goal, levels which the National Academy of Sciences has found have no basis in science. Instead, the agency sets AMLs arbitrarily, typically prioritizing the agency’s preference to have domestic cattle and sheep trucked into wild horse HMAs to compete with the horses.

At Onaqui, the Bureau claimed that wild horses were “overpopulated” with an agency-estimated 474 adults in Spring of 2021. According to Bureau’s formula, one wild horse grazing for one month is one Animal Unit Month (AUM), equivalent to one cow-calf pair or five domestic sheep grazing public lands for one month. The 474 Onaqui horses totaled 5,688 AUMs year-round. Meanwhile, the Bureau simultaneously authorized domestic livestock totaling 19,592 AUMs – the equivalent of 1,633 wild horses – on the Onaqui Mountain HMA. In other words, the Bureau authorized over three times as many livestock as there were horses on the range, but then claimed that it was the horses that were overpopulated.

In contrast, during the months before the roundup, field visits by WWP and others documented that poor range conditions on parts of the Onaqui Mountain Wild Horse Herd Management Area were caused by Bureau-authorized cattle and sheep overgrazing. Habitats far from water where wild horses grazed remained in good condition, and the horses themselves were healthy. To add insult to injury, the agency authorized cattle grazing on about 32,000 acres of the HMA fenced off for multiple years for post-fire recovery; this “grass bank,” unavailable to the wild horse herd, was turned over to livestock industry instead, even as the agency removed wild horses on the pretext of insufficient forage.

Trump appointee William Perry Pendley famously proclaimed wild horse “overpopulation” to be the agency’s number one problem. In reality, wild horse impacts are microscopic compared to impacts of Bureau-authorized cattle and sheep. The Pendley plan to eliminate wild horses, cynically named “The Path Forward,” and based on a collaborative process stacked with livestock industry advocates and apologists, calls for reducing wild horse numbers to 27,000 nationwide and sells out free-ranging horses. The overwhelming majority of Americans support environmental priorities like wilderness, national monuments, and endangered species protection, but collaborations like Pendley’s put powerful special interests in control of public lands management.

As the Bureau removes wild horses from public lands, the agency has increased the numbers of cattle and sheep authorized to graze in the same places. If maintaining a “thriving natural ecological balance” is a problem, trading wild horses for cattle isn’t going to help.

The Pendley wild horse plan is a scam on the American taxpayers to benefit the livestock industry. Public land ranchers are charged only $1.35 an AUM to graze public lands (compare that to $23.40/AUM charged on private ranchlands). So the taxpayers are paying the exorbitant cost of helicopter roundups to remove wild horses from range, and then to transport tens of thousands of them to long-term holding pastures, which costs the taxpayers $2 per horse per day (or $60/AUM). The whole scheme is projected to cost taxpayers $5 billion over 15 years.

By shipping wild horses to Midwestern states for long-term holding, this policy pushes cattle off fertile and moist private lands to which they are suited, all to boost cattle numbers on fragile lands in the arid West where they do the most damage.

The fiscally responsible alternative is to manage wild horse populations on western public lands, and to remove the cattle and sheep instead. Federal regulations specifically provide, “If necessary to provide habitat for wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros from disease, harassment or injury, the authorized officer may close appropriate areas of the public lands to grazing use by all or a particular kind of livestock.” In April, more than 70 conservation and animal advocacy groups asked Interior Secretary Haaland to remove all livestock from wild horse HMAs.

On the final day of the Onaqui roundup, observers were told that the horses were actually in good condition, and forage was no longer a concern, but the roundup was justified due to a lack of sufficient water to sustain the horses in light of the drought. But drought wasn’t an issue when the Bureau first approved the emergency roundup. In any case, the cost of trucking water out to Onaqui horses over the summer would be far less than a helicopter-based roundup. If water is even needed – heavy rains hit Onaqui during the weeks following the roundup. The Bureau’s evolving excuses are simply one fiction after another. This roundup was completely unjustified, let alone an “emergency.”

Continuing the Trump administration’s wild horse policy at Onaqui is the first public misstep of environmental leadership by the nascent Biden administration. Instead of doubling down on Trump policies, the new administration needs to change course, and stop scapegoating wild horses for the ecological destruction caused by cattle and sheep. Honesty is the best policy.

** This version replaces an earlier – but substantively similar – draft of the article. (August 20, 2021)

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.

 
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26 Responses to The Fictions of Onaqui expose Fatal Flaws in BLM’s Wild Horse Program

  1. avatar Ted Chu says:

    As noted at the end of this article, as long as there are significant numbers of horses on the range they provide a ready scapegoat for the BLM and ranchers to take advantage of to deflect blame for poor range conditions away from cows and sheep. All livestock damage is additive and cumulative over time regardless what species or combination of species causes the damage.

  2. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    “Continuing the Trump administration’s wild horse policy at Onaqui is the first public stumble of environmental leadership by the nascent Biden administration. Instead of doubling down on Trump policies, the new administration needs to change course, and stop scapegoating wild horses for the ecological destruction caused by cattle and sheep. Honesty is the best policy.”

    Thank you.

  3. These horses need to be left alone and let them live in
    peace

  4. avatar Sue Carter says:

    Why should privately-owned cattle, who have ravaged the West for decades be given a virtually-free pass to continue to destroy our Public Lands? Anyone who has spent any time on Public Lands has seen the destruction and the hundreds of thousands of miles of fencing required to hold them.
    The 1992 GAO Report recommended NO cattle -grazing on America’s Hot Desert landscapes, which includes most of NM, AZ, NV,UT and S.Ca.
    Time to end it.

  5. avatar Patti says:

    The exact same for the West Douglas horses. Good body condition. They wiped all of them out. BlM is so corrupt. Lies and more lies. There was also plenty of water up there. I am just devastated by this. The fire made no difference for those horses. Our horses are being wiped out all over.

  6. avatar Sharon Campion says:

    Wild horses are the American Wild Horses are a wonder! They are healthy and are a symbol of our FREEDOM! Please to the BLM who heavy hitters paying lots to get rid of the horses snd I might a natural ecological part of freedom of land is the wolves and their pups,represent all that America holds dear FREEDOM! But more as they are all healthy and we don’t need more cattle or sheep!
    The Department of the interior has a responsibility to wild animals to keep them wild ! Support and pass the FREE ACT! BE A FREEDOM FOR ALL WILD ANIMALS IN AMERICA!
    Sharon Campion

  7. avatar Janet Morse says:

    It is beyond a shame that Sec Haaland who oversees the Bureau of Land Management has allowed these “emergency” helicopter roundups despite the hundreds of thousands of protestors against these inhumane practices. Remember the old marketing adage – one person equals 10 – so many more people don’t agree with the BLM’s actions than are writing to their senators/etc. we are being ignore – as the BLM pointed out in the EA statement for the Sand Wash Basin horses- basically we are just hysterical (men) and women who will get over it. this administration actually is making Richard Nixon look good since he signed the law protecting the wild horses and burros in 1971. Guess you welfare ranchers just found loopholes. who will you blame after all the horses are gone?

  8. avatar Maggie Frazier says:

    According to AWHC: In other words, as usual!

    “The release wasn’t perfect. Three mares scheduled to be returned to the range became sick in the holding pens and died. A fourth mare is recovering in a BLM holding pen. One mare released to the range was observed to be sick and was euthanized hours after being freed. The BLM has yet to release the cause of the illness. Other released horses are being monitored for potential sickness.”

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      I don’t know what to say. These people need to be kept away as far as possible from these poor animals. They don’t ever seem to care about their welfare. It truly is nauseating.

      I just read where Ken Salazar was confirmed as Ambassador to Mexico. I don’t think this administration is going to be a friend of wildlife. 🙁

  9. avatar Claudia says:

    I live in California. I’ve been writing my congressman/women, signed every petition, donate I don’t know what else to do! I thought interior secretary Holland was going to be helpful, and so far I don’t see anyting from her. She was at a symposium in Tahoe on August 19th. What the hell is she been doing? Is she working on saving the wolves and putting them back on the endangered species list? What about mustangs? What about that supposedly Secret Wildlife slaughtering unit they have to kill wildlife and get paid for it? I don’t know if it really exists but I read things online. What can I do to help? I don’t have a lot of money come on but I’ll be retired soon and I’m about ready to come out there and stand in front of the BL and vehicles with mustangs and I’m not sure what else cuz I’m at my wit’s end. This behavior is barbaric, disgusting Mission cease and desist! I think someone’s going to have to get shots over this before anybody pays attention and I’m not even sure if that would get anybody’s attention including the media…😡 please tell me how I can help?

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      Claudia – Wildlife Services is an agency of the USDA (if I’m not mistaken) its no secret – this agencie’s employees KILL wildlife – they dont use non-lethal methods – they KILL. And not only wildlife – many dogs, possibly other domestic animals. There was an incident(!) a few years ago, where a young boy & his dog were injured – the dog died, the boy was ill for some time. Yet the devices used are still being used by this agency. Look it up on the internet. The information is there.

  10. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    ^^For those of you who might not know, Ken Salazar has been implicated in an illegal scheme to ship our wild horses to slaughter in Mexico under his watch at the Interior. The Department of Justice refused to investigate. He is a familiar character from the Obama administration.

    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/inspector-general-report_b_8393670

  11. avatar Lisa G LeBlanc says:

    Some things I’ve observed:
    I follow herds in N. Nevada (not under BLM’s purview). The areas they live in contain about 1% native bunch grasses. The horses here rarely utilize them. There are former cattle pastures around the area that have ‘gone wild’ after decades of non-use, and neither the horses nor ungulates eat these grasses. And at this juncture, even the desert won’t take these areas back.
    I’ve read many Environmental Assessments for re-authorizing a grazing lease; some of these have stipulated that wild horses and cattle share only about 11% forage overlap, meaning only 11% of the plants are consumed by both horses and livestock.
    The horses here live on native shrubs; they share these areas with various deer species, and Big Horn. The habits of all these animals are ‘nibble and move on’. This desert – or the portions of it that haven’t been ripped down to the bedrock for an industrial park – is healthy and thriving.
    The point is, our deserts are designed to be grazed by animals that have evolved here and not planted with non-native grasses to feed non-native cattle. Cattle evolved in the lush grasslands of Northern Europe; without a massive amount of suitable food & water, they won’t thrive. So the deserts are being renovated for them. And the deserts are dying as a result.
    Deserts are extremely fragile; their destruction is almost assuredly permanent. These are plants and shrubs that are often hundreds of years old – slow-growing and resource-efficient. Take them away, re-plant with native and non-native grasses and you have produced an artificial, water-hungry, unsustainable environment. Deserts are greedy; rainwater disappears into aquifers below and the air above. Grazing allotments are allowed troughs for cattle, and lease holders will turn those waters off when the cattle are removed – waters the native wildlife has also become dependent on.
    So I think it’s safe to say – the biggest threat to our deserts are the proliferation of non-native grazers and the forage they depend on.
    It’s also important to note – when resources are scarce, wildlife respond by limiting reproduction; they inherently understand if there is little food or water, a gestating/lactating body can’t be sustained. So we’re left to wonder – where the hell did all these thousands of wild horses and burros come from during a long-term, severe, pervasive drought?
    (The answer is – from the calculators of the BLM. We’re not privy to what’s observed by aerial survey because apparently they can’t afford a Go Pro so we’re left with the imaginary ‘estimate’.
    Or “count what you see, then times it by three.”)

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      Always so good to have your input on any of these blogs. I honestly wonder if ANYONE in our government has a particle of common sense – enough to actually read & comprehend truth!

    • avatar NMC says:

      Regarding your question “we’re left to wonder – where the hell did all these thousands of wild horses and burros come from during a long-term, severe, pervasive drought?” one possibly overlooked answer is a shell game.

      In this way horses which were already removed from the range but weren’t recorded anywhere afterwards(abundant evidence shows truckloads often disappear between roundups and holding pens)can be offloaded in selected locations without public knowledge. It’s easy enough to move whole trailer loads of say, solid bay mares around to multiple places so long as they remain unbranded and otherwise not easily identified. The BLM does in fact move horses around between HMAs but how many, which ones, and how often is always difficult to ascertain.
      This may also partly explain the strong reluctance to allow the public to tour off-range holding facilities, or even try to adopt a known horse who has vanished into the Byzantine underworld of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Pogrom.

      • avatar NMC says:

        More shell games from the Antelope roundup currently underway quoted below.

        On site observers indicate some of these animals are being run 50 miles in a day, often with two choppers to terrify them further, and there is fresh evidence of sheep and cattle occupation, though the BLM evidently insists there are no livestock there:

        “The distance to trap is one factor, the lack of real observation at temporary corrals is the greatest impediment to being able to determine “who” was captured and “how they are doing.” “Observation” of the corrals yesterday would be limited to a “walk-around” and trying to see through snow fencing, where even the smallest opening a camera could see through is rapidly tied shut. The video we were able to grab from observation at the trap, shows the facility fill.

        These particular wild horses are being sent to an off-limts facility. The first half of this operation wild horse were sent to Palomino Valley Center north of Reno. The second half are going to the Axtel facility in Utah, you can not get into Axtel. The agency is still awarding contracts to off-limits facility to be used to intake wild horses directly from capture and further impede your ability to know “who” was captured and how they are doing.

        It is really hard when you know them wild and once captured, you can never find them again.”

        https://wildhorseeducation.org/2021/08/29/antelope-update-last-days/

        • avatar Lisa G LeBlanc says:

          They’ve been running ‘shell games’ for years.
          Case in point: after the Twin Peaks roundup in 2010,a friend did a FOIA request for the list of animals removed (she was looking for a specific horse). The catalogued animals included a gelding whose signalment key indicated he’d been come from Ridgecrest – in Southern California (and notice – he was a GELDING) which brought up an interesting thought that perhaps some HMAs are ‘salted’ to justify a mass removal.
          And a mare, estimated to be in her early 20’s, who died from complications of castration.
          I kept holding facility records for years, trying to somehow ‘resolve the books’ because so many animals go missing, and so many more get moved from facility to facility, ad nauseum they become almost impossible to track.
          However, one facility removal indicated 1699 had been taken from the Palomino Valley facility – which, coincidentally, was the exact number needing to be removed from a Central Nevada HMA.
          I’m not an alarmist nor a conspiracy theorist. But something is definitely amiss. There is no math in existence that will resolve the populations estimated vs. the birth rates, the numbers removed vs. the numbers in holding or any of the other ‘by rote’ methodology used by BLM.
          And when you try and unravel the mystery, you end up sounding like a crackpot.

  12. avatar Sharon Taylor says:

    These horses are our treasure 🙏♥️
    They are not in bad condition!
    The older mares know where the water is!
    We have to stop the helicopters chasing from these magnificent horses. they chase them for miles and then they put them in together all sweaty from running!
    horrible horrible conditions.
    I pray to God that this has to STOP 😢
    I pray that they will all be OK 🙏
    We need to stop these round ups.

  13. avatar Janelle Ghiorso says:

    The BLM needs to be investigated. The contractors should be also. The roundups are cruel and unnecessary. In one roundup in Nevada,the Antelope Complex Roundup, there were 2 foals that were run over by other horses as they ran, terrified from the helicopters. A mare was knocked down and horses got caught up in the barbed wire at the mouth of the trap site. There were 12 deaths, including broken necks and other injuries caused by the roundup that shouldn’t be happening in the first place. A horse was shot by the BLM who claimed that the horse was blind. They kill them for club foot often, even though the horse has managed just fine in the wild.

    The BLM is planning another massive roundup in the Sand Wash Basin for the same make believe reason as the others. The so called emergency is BLM’s way of avoiding public input or following NEPA laws. They are trying to remove as many horses as possible before they are legally stopped. The powers that be had best get it together or our mustangs will be nothing more than a beautiful memory.

  14. avatar Theresa Ingraham says:

    WTF? Have people gotten so cold hearted that they don’t feel anything anymore for the pain and destruction they have brought upon these horses? And people wonder why this country is going to shit in a hand basket. My heart breaks for these horses and I hope that the people (if u can call them that) that are commuting these atrausities burn in hell

  15. avatar Tim Donahue says:

    Time to cammo down get out their and meet those little choppers i bet they drop out of the sky pretty good, what the hell else can be done we have a bunch of moronic unelected IDIOTS AND MENTAL MIDGET POLITICIANS THAT DON’T GIVE A FU#K it’s time to take action against this EVIL

  16. avatar NMC says:

    CO Chapter of the Sierra Club steps in to stop the pending roundup in the Sand Wash HMA (Colorado’s largest and most iconic herd):

    SIERRA CLUB CITES LIVESTOCK GRAZING AS THE CAUSE OF SAND WASH BASIN RANGE STRESS AND CALLS FOR AN IMMEDIATE HALT TO HELICOPTER ROUND-UP
    Sierra Club Colorado Wildlife Chair, Delia Malone, said in a statement (8.30.21) that:
    “No wild horses should be removed from Sand Wash Basin until livestock have been removed and the range has recovered sufficiently to enable a scientific determination of the wild horse Appropriate Management Level.”

    “Livestock-induced degradation of the Wild Horse Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area has reduced the resistance and resilience of the range ecosystem… Livestock should be removed for a minimum of five – ten years. After this period of rest and recovery from livestock, the condition of the range should then be re-evaluated to determine an Appropriate Management Level for Wild Horses”

    With 4m members and a remit to protect wildlife and wild places, the Sierra Club is the most influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States.

    In April 2021, the Sierra Club introduced new policy opposing wild horse round-up by helicopter. Today, the Sierra Club enacted that policy in opposition to the Sand Wash Basin round-up, which is due to commence on 9.1.

    (See image for full statement).

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=5003146506367738&set=p.5003146506367738&type=3&theater

  17. avatar Maggie Frazier says:

    Yes it IS about time for Sierra Club to step to the RIGHT side of this whole issue! Took them long enough.
    Watched the Wild Lands, Wild Horses video – they did a good job – might educate people who are unaware that we HAVE wild horses & make them care. I hope so. Because the roundups going on right now are putting much pressure on the herds – all of them.

  18. avatar Ace says:

    Please explain how you can justify the presence of non-native feral horses on arid public lands in the west? Without deflecting to cattle grazing impacts, how can “wildlife biologists” complete the mental gymnastics to overlook the damage feral horses cause to riparian areas and uplands with low resiliency. Year-round, un-managed grazing by non-native horses, regardless of their “spirit” or “wildness”, causes significant impacts and consumes forage that could have been utilized by native wildlife. Maybe someday, sage grouse and pronghorn will have as many species specific “preservation” groups as horses do. Apparently, native critters aren’t charismatic enough. Before I’m corrected, feral horses are not native. Yes, they once existed on the N. American continent, along with other long-extinct Pleistocene megafauna.

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