Actress and former fashion model Katherine Heigl has joined advocates in the fight to stop a planned roundup of Utah’s most famous herd of wild horses — the Onaqui of the west desert.

“With their historic place on the public lands of Utah, the Onaqui horses are living treasures that contribute to the beauty of the Great Basin Desert, as well as the economic vitality of nearby communities,” said Heigl, who lives in Summit County and keeps horses at her ranch in the Kamas Valley. 

Instead of cruel helicopter roundups, I call on the Bureau of Land Management to leave the Onaqui horses on the land, manage them humanely with fertility control, and limit livestock grazing to protect the ecosystem.”

Heigl joins the Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy, as well as other opponents of a planned horse gather July 12 by the Bureau of Land Management.

Wild horse advocates say the federal government aims to remove as many 400 members of the estimated 500 animals on the range.

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“As a descendant of the early Mormon pioneers who settled Utah, I feel a strong personal connection to the amazing Onaqui horses,” said Scott Beckstead, director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy. “They occupy a special place in the history and culture of Utah and have captivated the imagination of admirers and advocates the world over.”

Wild horses of the Onaqui herd are pictured near Simpson Springs, in Tooele County, on March 20, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Beckstead emphasized the animals should be managed “humanely” and not trapped and removed from the range via helicopters.

To bring attention to their cause the groups have taken out billboards in Salt Lake City featuring Heigl with a wild Onaqui mare and foal.

The photo of the horses on the billboard was captured by Jen Rogers who owns and operates Wild Horse Photo Safaris, a Tooele County-based business that features tours of the area and viewing of the wild horses on the range.

“Their history is deep here in Utah and they symbolize all that is wild and free,” she said.

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The removal of wild horses to reduce their population in the West is part of a ramped up effort by the federal government to get to what’s called the “appropriate management level,” to improve rangeland conditions.

It’s estimated there are 95,000 wild horses in the West, when their targeted population is just over 27,000.

Although the federal government has instituted financial incentives for adoption of eligible horses and entered into long-term contracts for housing the animals, it has not been able to keep pace with population growth, which hovers around 20% each year.

The BLM does administer fertility control, but says in some rugged and remote areas it is impractical.

Advocates accuse the agency of not investing enough in fertility control to manage the size of herds.

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Heigl starred in Grey’s Anatomy from 2005 to 2010, winning a Primetime Emmy award for best supporting actress, as well as numerous films over the years. Additionally, she has appeared as a cover model in publications that include Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan and Maxim.