By LINDSAY WHITEHURST and JAMES ANDERSON
TOOELE, Utah (AP) – The sound of the helicopter’s propeller thundered over the horizon as it plunged toward mustangs dotting the golden brown plain. The horses galloped as the craft approached, their shrill neighs rising into the dry air.
This helicopter raid in the mountains of western Utah has kidnapped hundreds of wild horses at large, shortly before the Biden administration announced it would dramatically increase the number of mustangs kidnapped in the region. It is an emergency measure according to land managers that is essential to preserve the ecosystem and the horses as a mega-drought aggravated by climate change takes hold of the region.
“What we’ve seen here in the West provides a glimpse of a new standard,” said Terry Messmer, a professor at Utah State University who studies wild horse management.
The deletions fuel long-standing conflicts with animal activists whose beauty and power make them an enduring emblem of the American West. They say the US government is using drought as an excuse to eliminate horses in favor of grazing cattle.
Captured horses are held in government corrals and pastures primarily in the West and Midwest before being released to the public for adoption. Some also end up being used by law enforcement entities such as the US Border Patrol, or go into inmate programs where they are tamed for future use.
Advocates have tried unsuccessfully to stop the raid on Utah’s Onaqui herd, which has captured the imaginations of Hollywood celebrities and Girl Scout troops. The horses of the picturesque and accessible herd are so well known that many have names, like the Patriarch “Old Man”. He was left behind in the July roundup, but around 300 other horses were taken in for adoption or kept in captivity for the rest of their lives.
“It is truly unfortunate that the Biden administration continues to scapegoat horses while giving cattle a pass that has a greater impact on public lands,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of American Wild Horse Campaign.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees nearly a quarter of a billion acres of public land, primarily in the West, and is responsible for managing the wild horse population. It plans to withdraw some 6,000 horses, mostly from Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming and Colorado, by October, a 50% increase from last year. Eventually, land managers say they need to cut the number of feral horses by two-thirds to maintain balance.
“In many places where wild horses and burros roam, virtually no vegetation has been produced in the spring and early summer,” said Jason Lutterman, spokesperson for the National Wild Horse and Burro Program in Reno. , Nevada. The Biden administration has announced reforms to ensure that captured horses offered for adoption don’t end up in slaughterhouses, but advocates fear problems will persist as long as the government offers an incentive for adoption. of $ 1,000..
Advocates of wild horses recognize that lack of forage and water can be a problem in some areas, but argue that taking away from herds like the Onaqui is unnecessary.
“The BLM has an asset against drought, and they sometimes use it when they want to take extra horses off the course,” Greg Hendricks, director of field operations.
Advocates want to leave horses on the course and instead administer fertility treatments to limit herd size without roundups which can be costly and harsh on the animals. A horse died in Onaqui’s roundup. Fertility treatments are used, but require new doses at least once a year and can be difficult to administer because they require the horses to be tracked and stung one at a time, Messmer said.
Cattle ranchers, meanwhile, say they’ve made voluntary changes to reduce grazing on federal lands. By carrying water to drought-stricken areas for their cattle, they’ve even helped horses who drink it too, said Hunter Ihrman, a spokesperson for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The number of sheep and cattle grazing on leased public land far exceeds the number of wild horses, Messmer said. A key difference, however, is that ranching is part of the US economy.
“Americans love their McDonald’s burgers. They love their Big Macs. They love all of these things, and all of these things contain beef, ”he said.
Ultimately, land managers want to double the number of deletions, a step they see as essential in 10 western states in the coming years. Wild horses are federally protected, so the plan, if approved by Congress, would increase costs to an annual high of around $ 360 million.
Without these changes, horses could die of thirst or hunger, they say. Dozens of horses were found dead near a dry waterhole in northern Arizona in 2018.
Wild horses today in the plains are largely descended from those brought by Europeans hundreds of years ago. Herds can double in size every four to five years, and when populations get too high, they destroy topsoil, disrupt water supplies, and eat grass essential to native species like greater sage-grouse. in addition rare, said Messmer.
In recent weeks, federal land managers have conducted the largest helicopter rally in Colorado in years, near the border with Utah. Meanwhile, volunteers trying to protect another nearby herd are working with the agency to deliver water to the horses using tanks, wells and tankers, said Kathy DeGonia, president of Piceance. Mustangs.
The Piceance-East Douglas herd’s rugged range is littered with oil and gas production, so the dirt roads facilitate water deliveries during drought. Deliveries could extend until November.
DeGonia’s group also works with federal officials on programs such as sterilization and horse auctions.
“In a perfect world, we would let all of these mustangs stay there until they died,” she said. “But there is simply not enough food and water to maintain all the horses on the course.”