In the face of growing unease in the way wild horses are "warehoused" for years at taxpayer expense and sometimes sold to questionable buyers, federal officials in Utah have recently completed two roundups and are poised to initiate another near Delta.
These Utah horse gathering operations, expected to remove up to 314 animals from the range, will add to the pressure on the BLM's long-term holding facilities, but are necessary to ensure the health of these herds and the public range they inhabit, officials say. Nearly 50,000 horses and burros are now in captivity, while another 35,000 remain on Western public lands.
Wild horse advocates claim the roundups, often conducted by helicopter, are not always necessary and traumatize the animals, and ultimately divert millions in taxpayer dollars to private contractors.
Meanwhile, a federal judge temporarily shut down a Nevada roundup and will hear arguments Thursday on whether to allow it to go forward after activists presented video evidence that a BLM contractor used electric prods on horses in alleged violation of agency standards.
That court action has no bearing on the month-long delay on Utah's Swasey roundup, which was set to commence next week west of Delta, according to the Bureau of Land Management's Gus Warr, who supervises Utah's wild horse and burro program. The Nephi-based wrangler that won the contract, Cattoor Livestock Roundup Co., is obligated on another Nevada horse roundup next week, so Swasey was put off until Feb. 11.
While helicopters are controversial, Warr contends using them can be the most humane way to direct horses toward holding pens.
"In my 20 years with the program I found it the best way to gather the horses. As long as you have a good pilot, they don't have to be roped or choked down," Warr said.
But in November, activist Laura Leigh of Wild Horse Education, recorded wranglers with Cattoor's competitor administering "hot shots" to horses.
"The BLM in 40 years has failed to create a humane, enforceable standard for wild horses and burros. They need to be very clear in how their roundups and handling at their facilities are to be managed," Leigh said.
The BLM oversees 19 heard management areas, or HMAs, in Utah, which currently harbor 4,200 free-roaming horses and burros. Since November, the agency has bait-trapped 46 horses from the Chloride HMA after they wandered onto private land in search of forage, and used helicopters to wrangle 171 head of the Frisco herd outside Milford.
"Our goal was to remove some pressure and administer some fertility control and in two years do another gather," Warr said. Twenty-six mares were treated and returned to the Frisco range, along with 27 stallions. The rest, including the Chloride horses, were sent to a holding facility at the Gunnison prison.
The Swasey HMA can sustain 100 horses, but the herd now exceeds 300, according to Warr.
The 164 horses slated to be pulled from Swasey will be sent BLM's short-term holding facility in Delta. Some will be adopted, but most will wind up in long-term storage on private ranches.
Only last week, BLM imposed strict limits on the sale of captive wild horses in the wake of allegations that a big purchasers may have shipped these animals for slaughter in violation of federal law. Now, no more than four wild horses or burros may be bought by an individual or group within a six-month period, buyers must say where they intend to keep the animals for the next six months, and pick them up in trailers that pass a safety check.
Exceptions can be made, but only with the prior approval of BLM's assistant director for renewable resources and planning.
The BLM sells few horses in Utah, no more than five a year, so the policy is not expected to have much of an impact here, said Warr, who helped intercept an illegal shipment of more than 50 horses last year bound for Mexican slaughterhouses.