Michael d'Estries, Treehugger
June 8, 2021
The famed Onaqui wild horses that roam over the picturesque ranges of Utah are facing an uncertain future. On July 12, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will conduct a roundup of as many as 400 members of the herd that reside within the 321-square-mile Onaqui Herd Management Area (HMA), leaving only 121 or so behind.1 Those trapped and sent to BLM facilities will likely never roam their ancestral lands again, contained within pens or pastures or adopted and sent to other parts of the country.2
For actor Katherine Heigl, who has used her fame to support animal welfare issues in the past, the roundup of the cherished Onaqui is both cruel and unnecessary.
“With their historic place on the public lands of Utah, the Onaqui horses are living treasures that contribute to the beauty of the Great Basin Desert, as well as the economic vitality of nearby communities,” said Heigl, who lives in Utah and keeps horses at her ranch in the Kamas Valley. “Instead of cruel helicopter roundups, I call on the Bureau of Land Management to leave the Onaqui horses on the land, manage them humanely with fertility control, and limit livestock grazing to protect the ecosystem.”
Heigl, most recently seen in the Netflix drama series Firefly Lane, is lending both her voice and image to a new campaign to protect the Onaqui herd spearheaded by Animal Wellness Action, the Animal Wellness Foundation, and the Center for a Humane Economy. In addition to billboards featuring the actress advocating for the public’s support in opposing the roundup, she’s also personally taking to social media to promote the cause to her more than 5 million combined followers.
“Time is running out for these beautiful animals, please take action,” she writes, adding a link to the campaign’s official site saveonaqui.com.
The battle to decide on the most humane and ecologically balanced solution for controlling growing horse populations in the U.S. is widely disputed, with conflicting input from animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians, scientists, and many more. One thing they can all agree upon is herd numbers are increasing. There are presently nearly 100,000 wild horses and burros that roam the Western U.S., with estimates between 10%-20% in growth each year.3 BLM seeks to reduce these numbers to less than 30,000 animals. At stake, the agency claims, are fragile habitats threatened by overgrazing from wild horse herds like the Onaqui.
“We have some rangelands in the American West that are so degraded today they will never recover,” William Perry Pendley, the former acting director of the BLM, said in 2019. “What I am being told is there is no amount of money, there is no amount of time, there is no amount of good science that we can throw at this issue that will return these lands to a healthy status. That is a terrible place to find ourselves. We simply cannot allow it to continue.”
Those on the other side of the issue, however, lay the degradation of rangelands not the backs of horses, but from the hoofprints of grazing cattle and sheep.
“The BLM claims the roundup of the Onaqui horses is needed to preserve sage grouse habitat and restore land damaged by wildfires,” the site SaveOnaqui.com states.4 “At the same time, the agency permits several thousand cows and sheep to graze on allotments in and around the HMA, with heavy concentrations of livestock grazing during winter and early spring – the most critical growth period for rangeland health and even in areas fenced off from horse use in order to recover from fire damage.”
After the roundup
Because wild horses are protected under federal law, those captured by BLM are vaccinated, branded, and the stallions castrated. Many will remain in BLM-contracted corrals or pastures. The management of these captured herds, according to DeseretNews, costs taxpayers at least $81 million per year.
Of these, several thousand will be put up for public adoption. Presently, the federal government is offering a plan that pays adoptees up to $1,000 to help care for one wild horse. A New York Times investigation discovered, however, that many of these wild horses and burros are ending up being sent to slaughter plants in Mexico and Canada instead.
"The investigation by the AWHC and The Times found some people were adopting the horses and burros, keeping them for a year, and then immediately selling them as soon as they collected the funds,” senior writer Mary Jo DiLonardo wrote for Treehugger. “They were in a sense, ‘flipping’ them by selling them for slaughter, getting paid twice.”