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FOX 13 News 360: Controversy behind wild horse roundups

Posted at 9:48 PM, Aug 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-16 00:03:04-04

Wild horses live all over the western United States, including parts of Utah so remote that many people have never even seen one.

But there are thousands — and by some assessments, too many.

So, how many wild horses can the land sustain? And how — or when — should humans intervene? We looked at the different viewpoints in this in-depth “360” report.

On July 13, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) kicked off what they call a "wild horse gather" in Tooele County.

They invited us to observe, along with advocates for wild horses who are often at odds with the BLM.

From the viewing site, one could see horses run from a low-flying helicopter, kicking up dust as they ran across the range.

What’s out of view? The area where the wild horses are corralled, loaded onto trucks and driven away.

The BLM said it was dangerous for us to be too close to the action.

But critics say the real danger is for the horses.

The roundups, or gatherings, are complicated, costly and controversial.

So why do they happen?

“The appropriate management level for this area is between 196 and 210, and we’re fastly approaching 500 with this year’s foal crop,” BLM public affairs specialist Lisa Reid said.

“Appropriate management level” is a designation for how many wild horses the land in a given area can sustain.

The BLM has herd management areas all over the western U.S., including 19 in Utah.

Most are in remote areas where wild horses have little to no human contact.

But the herd at the center of this story — the Onaqui, named after a nearby mountain range — is different.

Because the Onaqui are less than two hours from Salt Lake City, they get a fair number of visitors.

The BLM says a total of 435 horses were removed from the herd over the course of several July roundups.

In early August, 123 of them were returned to the range — mostly females that had been given long-lasting birth control.

The remaining 300+ horses will be put up for adoption through the BLM's online adoption program.

“Everyone in the united states will have the same opportunity to adopt," Reid said.

Kimberlee Curyl’s horse was once wild in Wyoming, but he now lives on her ranch in California.

“I actually jump him, which is not normal for what you would think of a wild horse doing, but we take jumping lessons," she said.

But not all adopted horses fare as well.

"The roundups are leading to the slaughter of horses," said Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Campaign.

Roy says thousands of formerly wild horses have lingered in holding facilities, unwanted. Low adoption fees, she says, pave the way for nefarious buyers to turn a profit by re-selling them for meat sold in other countries

"We would like to see a move away from helicopter roundups and toward humane, on-the-range management with fertility control," she said.

"The goal would be to not have to ever gather or remove horses from the range, but we’re just not there yet," Reid said.

The BLM says drought conditions necessitated a dramatic reduction of the Onaqui herd this summer

“We’ve seen that our water supply for the horses is starting to deplete because of the heat," Reid said.

But Ashley Avis, the director of Disney's "Black Beauty" and founder of wild horse advocacy group Wild Beauty, says the drought is one of many distractions from a bigger issue.

"I’m not going to be wooed by Lisa Reid’s attempt at half-baked publicity out on the range," she said.

She claims the BLM gives “deference and preferential treatment to tax-subsidized livestock grazing.”

The BLM tells FOX 13 that ranchers have voluntarily reduced grazing on the Onaqui’s range by as much as 90 percent.

“It’s really important to know cattle and sheep graze very differently than wild horses, they eat a lot more, they drink a lot more," Avis said.

As for the “appropriate herd management levels” established in the 70s, Avis says they hold no weight.

“In 2013, the National Academy of Science — a group of nonpartisan scientists — they debunked that the MLs were ever created using science," she said.

Avis said last month's Onaqui gather — or roundup — had a more humane kickoff when our cameras were rolling.

“The helicopter stayed much further back than any other roundup I’ve ever seen," she said.

But she says the roundup increased in intensity on the second day of operations after we left.

“They don’t want you seeing the injuries that happen. And on that day, a mare did break her leg and was put down,” Avis said. “The very next day when I asked in front of the Associated Press, standing right in front of Lisa Reid, ‘Did any horses die?’ ‘No, not due to gather operations.' It was just a lie.”

The BLM's website currently acknowledges that one horse died.

“I think the entire horse and burro program needs to be reassessed before we continue with these antiquated roundups,” Avis said.

It’s important to point out that not all horse advocates share the same views, and the BLM says it is open to new ideas.

"We will work with those who are there to work with us, and not those who are there just for hateful means," Reid said.

Click here for more information on the adoption program.