SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is home to the Onaqui wild horses, a herd of almost 600 that roams on public land outside Tooele. The herd attracts photographers from around the world, according to horse photographer Rob Hammer.
"It’s like you step into a postcard and these horses are part of it, it’s just amazing," Hammer said.
About 150 horse lovers and wildlife photographers from around the nation gathered outside the Bureau of Land Management office in Salt Lake City to protest a roundup of about 80 percent of the herd, meant to cut its size. They group gathered 100,000 signatures on a petition to stop the roundup.
Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said the roundup would cost half a million dollars, and care for the horses as they are stored in holding facilities would be much more.
The horses would be available for adoption, but Roy says there is not an adoption market, and she fears some horses could be slaughtered or live the rest of their lives in a pen.
"The horses are getting the short end of the stick, and we’re here to say this is not what the public wants. This is not what the taxpayers want," Roy said.
Roy and Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, went to meet with the Bureau of Land Management to present a cost-effective plan, offering to pay for a fertility control program instead of a roundup.
"There is a proven, scientific humane way to manage horses to a lower population, and it’s very reasonable," Netherlands said.
Netherlands said she thinks the meeting went well. She said they opened a dialogue and will be having a follow-up meeting in the next few weeks to discuss the program.
"We think they were very open and really very reasonable," Netherlands said.
Netherlands said compromises will be the way to solve the issue. She said the bureau is firm on rounding up the part of the herd that lives in the mountains and is less manageable.
"Let’s show that it can be done, and that the public can be happy, the BLM can be happy, and most of all, the horses can be happy," Netherlands said.
The Bureau of Land Management already has a vaccination fertility program, but Roy said it has not put enough effort into the program for it to work as intended. She said her group is encouraging the bureau to give a more humane option a better chance.
Roy said Utah has about 5,000 wild horses living on 2.1 million acres of public land they share with livestock. Livestock, including cattle and sheep, live on 22 million acres of land.
Another unique aspect of the horses is they are organized in social units. Roy said observers can watch the social dynamic of the Onaqui horses and see families and groups of younger stallions who are friends.
"The minute they hit that trap it’s the end of their freedom, it’s the end of their family," Roy said.
She also said the Onaqui herd is "like the Hollywood herd," because it is so accessible to photographers. The horses are named and are famous on the internet.
Hammer said this group is historical — it likely began with the pony express and is still live along the trail. He photographs wild horses throughout Utah and said these horses gather in larger than normal groups and are very accommodating to human photographers.
"You can get right in close and almost mingle with them … they don’t just run when you get within a quarter-mile of them like most of the other horses," Hammer said.