The Onaqui Horses of Utah - National Icons

The Onaqui wild horses have lived in the valleys bordering the Onaqui Mountains here in Utah since the late 1800s.  They are visible from many spots along a lengthy stretch of the Pony Express route and are a historic icon and reminder of the Wild West. The horses live in two distinct groups approximately 15 miles apart – one at the south end of the HMA near the Simpson Springs campground and one at the north end of the range near Dugway Proving Grounds Army base.

“As with the billowing wind blowing with reckless abandon in the West Utah desert, the Onaqui wild horses are found to be running age old trails ground into the dirt by distant ancestors. Their history is deep here in Utah and they symbolize all that is wild and free. Revered by many far and wide, they bring locals and tourists alike to an otherwise barren landscape and serve as both a delight and a daily reminder of all that is right with family bonds, structure, unity and loyalty. And it's in this desert they should stay.”
– Jen Rogers, Wild Horse Photo Safaris

According to BLM’s own website the horses “are in good condition” and anyone who visits the herd can easily verify that.  The HMA spans across 205,394 acres and is 321 square miles total which is a desolate, remote desert environment.  The only civilization close to the range is the Dugway Proving Grounds Army baThe current plan to capture 400 of the Onaqui Wild horses is also a huge threat to genetic diversity.  BLM plans to reintroduce 104 of these 400 horses captured back to the range.  These horses returned will be handpicked depending on age, gender and the female’s tolerance to being darted with PZP.  Of these 104 horses 52 mares will be treated with PZP. 

The Onaqui herd lives in two distinct bands, the north and the south, which do not co-mingle, only returning such small numbers of horses to the range compromises the integrity of health and dynamics of the herd. The minimum number of animals in a herd to allow for genetic diversity and healthy breeding has been said to be 100.  With such low numbers post round-up and inevitable destruction of their familial bonds and social structure disastrous results seem imminent. 

The average reproductive rate per year of wild horses without PZP is 14.8% according to the Science and Conservation center in Montana.  It has been shown that this reproductive rate skyrockets after gathers to as high as 50%.  This is called a compensatory reproduction rate and happens because the herd feels the population threat and responds by increasing their rate of production.  Hence why PZP is a far better method of herd management than massive gathers such as this one.  

The Onaqui herd can currently be found living their best lives in the West Utah desert however in exactly 80 days from today they face a decimation of population numbers, band continuity and genetic viability. On July 12th a roundup will begin capturing 400 of 475 horses via helicopter, loading them into crowded stock trailers and transporting them to the off-site BLM facility in Delta where the processing and sorting will take place. They receive freeze brands and tags tied around their necks which then determine their new identities. They will be vaccinated, stallions will be gelded and then they will be separated by age and gender to be kept in holding pens. Of the 400 captured, 52 mares and 52 stallions will be handpicked to be returned to the ranged based on age and the females past tolerance to being darted with the equine contraceptive PZP in the field.

The Utah BLM estimates there to be a total herd population of 475 horses not including 2021 foals.  This total encompasses the North herd, the South herd and horses which have wandered outside the HMA.  It was once thought that only 50 horses was needed to maintain genetic diversity, however more recent studies have shown this number to be much higher. (read more details here)  Assuming the current BLM population numbers to be correct, if 400 of 475 wild horses are removed that leaves 75 horses on the range for the HMAs 2 distinct herds: 37.5 horses for a north herd and 37.5 horses for a south herd. 

BLM then plans on handpicking 104 horses based on age, gender and ease with which to dart with equine fertility control to subsequently return to the range. 52 horses for the north, 52 horses for the south and if equally divided in genders that’s 13 mares and 13 stallions to each group. 
In a nutshell it can be assumed that after the July 2021 round-up is all said and done only 89 horses will be allowed to live in each section of the range respectively.  That’s a dangerously low level of horses to maintain genetic variation, herd structure and contribute to the future health & viability of the herd. 

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.


Photography by : Jen Rogers |