By Kristen Moulton, Salt Lake Tribune
Wah Wah Mountains • It’s easy to forget the depth of disagreement over wild horse management in the West on a day like Monday.
The weather was warm but not hot, with no wind and no rain as the Bureau of Land Management began its only Utah wild horse roundup of the year, the Blawn Wash gather to remove 140 horses from where no one wants them: state land.
No horses were injured and not one of the 20 spectators watching from a hill above the corral threw a punch.
"It’s going great," said Gus Warr, the Utah BLM’s wild horse and burro manager who played host to the spectators as 45 horses were herded by helicopter into a corral and taken off the range in trucks. The horses came out of the Wah Wahs’ juniper-covered hills and washes in four groups, over several hours.
"The weather is cooperating. The horses are cooperating," Warr said.
He could have said the same for rancher Mark Wintch, whose fifth-generation ranch in the Wah Wah Valley could be seen in the distance, and Ellie Price, the founder of Montgomery Creek Preserve for wild horses north of Sacramento and an advocate with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC).
The two are on opposite sides of the debate over which animals should have priority on the public range, and they spent considerable time Monday discussing their points of view with Warr and each other.
Ranchers and county commissioners in southern Utah have been demanding the BLM remove far more horses; Wintch is part of a rancher group suing the BLM. Wild horse advocates have been pressing for reduced livestock numbers and for BLM to make greater use of birth control to manage horse herds.
The agency concedes it has twice as many wild horses, 3,979 in Utah as of March, as its own target levels allow. But the agency is running out of long-term pastures for the horses it cannot adopt out. It’s the same story in the nine other states with wild horses.
Wintch, who brought three of his children to Monday’s roundup, said he’ll have to spend $200,000 or $300,000 next winter to buy hay to replace the pasture alfalfa his cows and calves are eating now. They should be grazing on School and Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA) he leases in Blawn Wash, but drought and horses have taken that feed, he said.
Wintch and Warr told Price and Caroline Kraus, also with the AWHPC from California, that wild horses thrive on Utah’s southwest desert in part because of the water features — pipes, ponds and tanks — that ranchers build and maintain.
"We don’t want ‘em all gone either," Wintch told Price. "We’re just asking for proper control." Livestock numbers are far lower than in decades past, he said.
Price argued that the federal government needs a public lands plan that is fairer to the horses, especially because the American public favors wild horses over livestock.
"How can you blame the horses [for range degradation] when there are eight to 10 times more private livestock?" she asked.
Kraus said it may be that ranchers’ water keeps horse herds growing. "But are we creating an environment that invites them and then blaming them for coming?"
As horses streamed into the corral, Kraus watched through a long camera lens and was circumspect.
"You’re looking at horses that have completely lost their freedom," she said.
Kelly Jay of Tooele, who frequently photographs the Onaqui wild horse herd near Dugway, said it broke her heart Monday to see horse bands broken up.
"People say they’re just dumb horses, but they’re family units. They actually love each other," Jay said.
Linda and Mike Sandston of Leeds were surprised by the condition of the horses, given the scarce grass on the desert.
"I didn’t expect them to be as beautiful and healthy," Linda Sandston said.
Many of the horses were rated a "4" or "5" by the wranglers moving them into trucks, meaning the horses were considered in good health.
The horses gathered from Blawn Wash will go to the Central Utah Correctional Facility at Gunnison, where they’ll be branded, vaccinated and put up for adoption. Some likely will be kept aside for inmates to train, said Lisa Reid, BLM spokeswoman.
Ron Torgerson, a resource officer for SITLA, said the horse removal should help prevent degradation of the state lands in Blawn Wash, but won’t permanently fix the problem. Horses from other herds will move into Blawn Wash, which has been seeded over the years and provides prime grass, he said.
Warr acknowledged the roundup is "just a scratch" at the long-term goal of removing wild horses from the state lands. He estimated there were 250 horses there before this week’s roundup.
Besides the 140 being removed from the Blawn Wash area, the federal land agency is using passive measures called water traps to capture 50 horses on private land northwest of Cedar City.
So far, 25 horses have been corralled and removed at one such water hole, and two new traps have been set up, said Elizabeth Burghard, field office manager for the BLM in Cedar City.
The BLM also plans to remove 10 horses that are part of the Sulphur herd along the Nevada state line. About 20 of that herd’s horses hang out around State Road 21, and they’re a hazard to motorists.