“I am still under the impression that there is nothing alive quite so beautiful as a horse.”
The last several weeks we have been discussing the wonderful wild mustangs of the Onaqui herd that are found along the Pony Express National Historic Trail from Lookout Pass to the Old River Bed.
Horses like the ones you see out there today carried the brave express riders along their journey from station to station delivering the mail and these horses have lived continuously out in the Utah West Desert since the 1800s.
The West Desert of Utah is not an easy place for any creature to live and it is severely lacking in the resources necessary to sustain life, mainly water and to a lesser degree, forage on the range. For this reason, the herd’s numbers must be limited so that over grazing and depletion of resources does not result in malnourished or even the eventual starvation of horses. The Bureau of Land Management is charged with managing these horses and maintaining the herd at a healthy number. This is no easy task as the wild horses and burros of Utah proliferate very quickly if left to their own devices.
As mentioned last week, I had the pleasure to speak with the manager of the BLM’s wild horse and burro program in Utah, Gus Warr, and ask him some questions about the Onaqui herd and what the future may hold for the wild horses in our State.
Gus told me that there are 3,200 wild horses and burros all across Utah and the management and population control of these animals is a massive challenge. The BLM has five district offices in Utah located in Cedar City, Fillmore, Price, Richfield and Salt Lake City that manage wild horses and burros. These offices manage 19 Herd Management Areas, the Onaqui HMA is one of these, where the horses are allowed to roam free. There are also 29 “herd” areas in the State where horses originally existed and still exist throughout the state outside of the Herd Management Areas.
To maintain a balance and prevent these animals from damaging the fragile desert range, the target appropriate management level for the Onaqui herd is 121-210 horses. As of June 2022, a population survey counted 276 horses in the Onaqui herd. To keep the population of the herd from getting completely out of control, the BLM manages the horse numbers in several different ways. First, if the horses’ fertility can be limited to a level that protects the health of the herd and the range, the BLM will do that by darting with fertility control vaccines. Another way of controlling the numbers is through adoption. There are several adoption facilities in the state that can hold over 1,000 horses each located at Delta, Sutherland and Axtel in the Salina/Gunnison area.
Gus told me that the number one goal of management of these horses is to provide them good homes through adoption. To that end, he stated that “the better the horse looks, the easier it is to adopt out.” Over the years, horses have been brought in from Oregon, Wyoming and Nevada wild mustang herds to breed with the Onaqui herd to improve color and increase size and adaptability because bottom line, in the words of Gus — “color sells.”
This adoption program is exceptional because it allows many people of all ages to get exposure to these animals and if they are up for the challenge, people can work with a wild mustang to gentle it and then show it at the adoption where it can find a good home. My family has first hand experience with this as Cliff Tipton helped my daughter adopt and gentle a pretty little male horse named “Star.”
Star was a wild and unruly beast when Cliff started working with him but after a while, with Cliff’s help, Alex was able to put the first touch on him and then eventually gentle and adopt him out at the wild horse and burro show to a good home. This was a fantastic experience that my daughter will never forget and we thank Cliff and the BLM for affording us this opportunity.
There have been some instances where I have become upset while exploring the range but it seems when I do a little bit of research, I often find that my initial perception of the situation is not accurate. I then see them in a different light.
One example of this was when I noticed that a new fence line was strung up right through the middle of the Onaqui HMA in a place where the horses frequent near the Davis Knolls in Skull Valley. I was mad at this fence because I thought it would negatively impact the horses. It turns out that these fences were erected to protect the range as it rehabilitated itself from a devastating range fire that swept through the Davis Knolls. After a few years of grass getting a foothold on the valley floor, which provided more forage for the horses, the BLM removed the fences.
I also used to think that the local ranchers in the area hated the horses because they were in direct competition for resources with their livestock. That couldn’t be farther from the truth where the Onaqui Herd is concerned. Ensign Ranches in particular has been a very good neighbor and supporter of the Onaqui Herd by allowing the horses to utilize range improvement such as piped water and developed springs and ponds. Without this cooperation, the horses of the Onaqui range would have a very difficult time surviving in the desert.
Another terrible misconception that some people in Utah have is that the BLM rounds these horses up to be sold to private entities for slaughter. Fact is, it is illegal. Appropriations forbid the slaughter, exploitation or euthanization of these horses. These horses fall into a strange category as they are not considered livestock and because they are feral, they are not considered wildlife which would be managed by the State of Utah. They are in a league of their own, protected by federal law by the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 which states they have as much right to exist on the land as indigenous wildlife does.
The Act states: “Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” [THE WILD FREE-ROAMING HORSES AND BURROS ACT OF 1971 (PUBLIC LAW 92-195) §1331. Congressional findings and declaration of policy.]
To that end, when horses cannot be accommodated on the range and are unable to be adopted out, the BLM maintains them on large pastures throughout the west where 10s of thousands of these horses live out their days in a safe and healthy environment.
It seems that besides the occasional attack by a mountain lion, the greatest danger to these horses is the people who visit them. In the words of Gus…these horses have had way too much close contact with people who go out to the desert to see and take pictures of them but get way too close, feed them things that they shouldn’t eat and even touch or put their arms around them. This type of behavior will eventually result in tragedy if it doesn’t stop because these powerful beasts truly are wild and unpredictable and may injure or even kill someone who interacts with them irresponsibly.
Remember, if you go out to see these living legends, keep a minimum of 100 feet away. Do not feed them bread, vegetables or anything else. When people do this, they are putting themselves in great danger for personal injury and they put the horses at risk as well so protect yourself and protect the horses and keep your distance. If you would like to find out more information about the mustangs and the Wild Horse and Burro program, visit the BLM website at www.blm.gov/whb
We are so fortunate that we have the ability to go out and see these amazing creatures in their stunning habitat – Utah’s west desert. Enjoy this blessing and opportunity to glimpse into the past by viewing these descendants of the Mustangs who charged down the Pony Express Trail with the mail in one of the most exciting episodes in American History.
Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Desert with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.