story by Mary Bernard, of the Vernal Express
Bad Numbers and Propaganda Permeate BLM’s Justification for Wiping out Herd
(The comments made by the BLM and their associates do NOT reflect the opinion of the staff of SFTHH)
Cowboys and helicopters worked earlier this month to gather 109 wild horses from the Winter Ridge Herd Area, roughly 60 miles south of Vernal.
Range conditions forced the removal of the herd from the public lands under the direction of Vernal Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management.
“There’s barely enough range to support the herd as it is,” said Gus Warr, director of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program in Utah.
An environmental assessment of the range indicated the herd had exceeded the available forage.
“In a good year, one animal needs seven to eight acres of forage,” Warr said. “But in a bad year up to 20 acres might sustain one horse.”
The cumulative effect of drought, disease, heavy snows and lack of winter forage have taken their toll on the animals. Herd records were first made in 1977, when 40 animals were counted. But within five years the number had dwindled to eight animals.
“I truly believe these animals should be left wild and free,” said Lisa Friday, a wild horse advocate from Richmond, Va., who traveled to Utah to observe the roundup.
“The alternative is natural selection,” she said, noting that the forces of nature are effective in population control.
Friday also disputes the BLM’s findings of deficient range on Winter Ridge.
“Look at this, there’s grass everywhere,” she said while standing near the corrals. Her advocacy has led her to testify before Congress to stop the BLM’s actions.
An unusually wet spring left the herd in good shape this year in contrast to most years. But after years of difficult management the BLM determined the Winter Ridge Herd Area was not a suitable habitat to sustain the horses.
“Today, we estimate between 120 and 150 animals — horses, burros, and at least two mules — roam the Winter Ridge Herd Area of 46,500 acres,” said BLM public affairs specialist Lisa Reid.
These are not the legendary mustangs of western lore. Instead they are feral horses escaped from nearby ranches and tribal properties, according to the BLM’s environmental assessment. Their range is a wind-swept landscape on the edge of the Bookcliffs shared by oil and natural rigs, hunters, ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts.
The BLM and Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc. from Nephi spent the days leading up to the Sept. 9 roundup attempting to get an accurate count of the herd and scout a location to place their trap — an area where horses are brought in large groups, and then moved to corrals.
“The trap site needs to be carefully selected in a place close to the animals and somewhere they would naturally go,” said Cattoor spokeswoman Sue Cattoor.
“The trap site is selected for humane capture of the animals and not necessarily public viewing,” Cattoor said.
Still, assistant director of the Utah State School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, Kim Christy, whose agency’s lands are included in the herd area, was able to visit the trap site. Christy, who said his agency “applauds the initiative of the BLM in taking this action,” was given full access to the gather beyond the restricted areas.
Cattoor said restricted access is crucial because the company carries millions of dollars in liability insurance to ensure the safety of people and horses during a helicopter roundup.
The roundup procedures, in general, used two helicopters flying low to slowly drive small bands of horses into a trap. On Sept. 9, the helicopter flew just over the horses, “herding them up a hillside into the narrowing wings of a fence line covered with jute,” said Shane Sampson, a wrangler for the drive.
“A prodder horse leads them into a catch pen where we separate the studs, foals and mares into holding corrals,” he added.
Once separated, the horses were loaded about a dozen at a time onto trailers and transported to holding pens. The process was repeated until all the horses were removed from the trap.
It was a fairly calm process designed to keep the animals quiet in order to reduce injury among the herd.
Once captured, a final health evaluation and sort in the holding pens was completed by U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian Al Cane. He refused to comment on the condition of the Winter Ridge herd after collection, but an overall assessment by BLM officials rated the animals’ body condition as “normal.”
However, Reid told the Vernal Express that two horses had to be destroyed after the gather.
“Two were humanely euthanized after it was determined their injuries were significant,” she said. “These were old injuries and neither animal was hurt during the gather.”
Reid went on to say that officials traveled into Bull Canyon near Winter Ridge where they located an additional 50 horses, mules and burros.
“The terrain presents its own set of challenges, as not every locality is open enough to fly helicopters,” Reid said.
Altogether 36 studs, 46 mares, 26 foals and one gelding were gathered in the roundup. The animals were kept at the holding facility pending further tests for equine infectious anemia. As of Sept. 12, all blood samples taken had come back negative and all horses were being prepared for transport to the Delta Wild Horse and Burro Facility.
The facility houses the animals short-term before they are sent to pastures in Eastern states or adopted. Adoptions are by appointment only, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and are closed on federal holidays. Call 435-743-3100 for information.