Bureau of Land Management’s Planned Roundup of Famed Onaqui Horses of Utah Exposes Agency’s Continuing Contempt for National Icons

Old Man, known by some as Gandalf, is the elder statesman of the Onaqui herd living in the Great Basin Desert in western Utah. Nearing 30 years old, the iconic white stallion with the long, windswept mane and tail has triumphed in countless battles with other stallions for dominance, endured searing hot summers, and survived some of the most punishing winter conditions in the country. He can now be found grazing peacefully alongside other, older stallions he once counted among his many rivals. 

But Old Man may not survive what the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has in store for him. On July 12th, BLM helicopters will stampede members of the Onaqui herd into traps with the intent to permanently remove nearly 300 of them from their home territories. Any horse who shows the slightest signs of lameness, illness, injury, or who even appears underweight, will be shot and killed by the BLM. Elderly and in frail health, Old Man will almost certainly lag behind the rest of the herd, and if he makes it into the trap showing his age, the BLM’s “cowboys” will have their guns ready to end his life.

For wild horse photographers like Jami Bollschweiler (the Utah resident who took the accompanying photo), seeing Old Man is a rare treat. When Jami shares her photographs of the legendary horse on social media, her friends and followers respond with unabashed affection, admiration, and even reverence. Indeed, photographers and wild horse enthusiasts travel from all over the world to see this herd, with sightings of the ancient patriarch serving as the pinnacle of their experience.

For years, advocates and admirers around the world have celebrated the exploits and struggles of the famed Onaqui wild horses in the Great Basin Desert. Known for their robust beauty and their ability to thrive in a harsh and unforgiving high desert environment, this distinctive community of horses figures prominently in the imagination of wild horse enthusiasts, whose love for the horses is reflected in positive economic benefits for surrounding communities, where they spend money on hotel rooms, restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores. 

But the BLM, which seems to have an adverse reaction to wild horses with names and with a community of followers across the world, does its best to diminish the public’s love for the horses by blaming them for damaging the rangeland. It disingenuously claims the horses will be chased down, trapped, and removed for their own good, because otherwise they might not have enough forage to survive. The agency willfully omits from its self-serving narrative that the real threat to the range isn’t a few hundred wild horses, but thousands upon thousands of cattle and sheep grazed at taxpayer expense to enrich corporate livestock producers. And when challenged, it will point to the nefarious “Path Forward” – the plan backed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Humane Society of the United States calling for mass roundups and removals – as cover for the operation. 

For perspective, consider the numbers: The Onaqui Herd Management Area (HMA) is over 205,000 square acres in size – half as big as all of San Diego County, California. That amounts to one horse per 512 acres. For purposes of scale, a single, domestic horse typically requires two acres of land to provide for its food and space needs. Yet still the BLM perpetuates the lie that this vast habitat can’t support this small, vulnerable population of horses.

Nor can the BLM claim its roundup of the Onaquis is financially responsible. In 2020, the agency spent 80 percent of its total budget on helicopter roundups and off-range holding pastures. That’s nearly $64 million to remove and warehouse wild horses and burros that could be managed on public lands at a much lower cost. The BLM itself estimates that the cost of keeping one wild horse in government holding is upwards of $50,000 over the animal’s lifetime. In other words, keeping wild horses and burros on public lands and using on-range management solutions is not only more humane, but also much more cost-effective.

The plight of the Onaquis illustrates just how badly out of step the BLM is with the American public and with sound horse conservation methods. While most Americans love to see horses and burros living wild and free on the public landscape and support humane, on-the-ground management that centers on proven fertility control to regulate population growth, the BLM perpetuates a cowboy culture that views horse advocates and their passion with open disdain, and regards these national icons as little more than feral pests that must be subdued and removed from our federal lands.

We at Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy believe wild horses and burros, descendants of the animals that helped build our nation, belong free on the range they call home. If you agree, we invite you to join us in the fight to save the Onaqui wild horses by taking action HERE. Please take a moment to contact Gus Warr, Director of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program and voice your opposition to the Onaqui roundup and urge him to implement fertility control to manage the population. Email gwarr@blm.gov or call 801-977-4300.

Scott Beckstead is the Director of Campaigns for the Center for a Humane Economy and Animal Wellness Action.