Just off the historic Pony Express Road in western Utah lies a picture-perfect vista of the American West: miles of sagebrush grasslands set against the foothills of the Onaqui Mountains. And, until early July, nearly 500 mustangs grazed and galloped through it. It’s one of the most well-known populations of free-roaming horses in the United States—a draw for tourists, photographers, and horse lovers.
On July 13, the helicopters showed up. Operated by private contractors commissioned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the low-flying helicopters drove hundreds of startled horses off the public lands and into holding pens. On a hillside nearby, activists opposed to the roundup protested and documented the event.
From July 13 to July 18, BLM rounded up 435 stallions, mares, and foals from the Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Area, one of 19 it manages in Utah. One young mare suffered a broken ankle in the frenzy and had to be euthanized. The agency gave fertility control injections to just over a hundred mares and stallions before releasing them back to the wild. The rest—about 350 horses—were sent to holding facilities, to enter permanent captivity.
BLM is required by law to manage wild horse and burro populations in a way that it deems sustainable for the horses, the burros, the public lands they live on, and the ecosystem they inhabit. The Onaqui herd, BLM says on its website, was so big that it was beginning to degrade the land, and because of drought, the horses haven’t been able to find enough to eat and their health was declining. The bureau determined that a sustainable size for the Onaqui herd should be between 121 and 210 horses, and that nationwide, there should be no more than 26,000. It has the authority to round up the rest.
Today, 86,000 free-roaming horses live on nearly 28 million acres of public lands across 10 western U.S. states, and 55,000 taken off the land now live in government-run quarters. With no natural predators, their numbers are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year, according to the bureau. In the first half of 2021, BLM removed 4,391 horses, aiming to bring that number up to total of nearly 11,600 by the end of the year. BLM did not respond to requests for comment.
Managing this horse population, including caring for captured horses, costs taxpayers about $100 million a year. Nonetheless, most Americans know very little about them, including where they came from, where they live, or even that they run wild in the American West by the tens of thousands, according to a 2020 survey by Utah State University. But for activists, scientists, the government, and livestock owners who lease public lands—and whose animals compete with horses for forage—approaching how to deal with the rising population of wild horses humanely and sustainably is an intractable dilemma that grows every year.
The Onaqui herd “gather,” the technical term for the rounding up of free-ranging horses, renewed outrage among activists and the public, leading to protests at the Utah State Capitol and outcry on social media.
“People have named these horses, and know them,” says Neda DeMayo, executive director at Return to Freedom, a wild horse sanctuary and advocacy organization. “This tragic roundup could have been avoided by implementing a successful fertility control program years ago.” Because the herd is so easily accessible, she says, they would have made for the ideal case study for relying exclusively on on-range fertility control, with drugs administered via a dart gun or by temporarily corralling the horses.