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HERRIMAN — Another group of wild horses was loaded into trailers at first light Monday morning, headed to Gunnison where many of them will be gentled by prison inmates for eventual adoption.
About a dozen more of the animals will follow suit Tuesday as the Bureau of Land Management's Salt Lake Wild Horse and Burro Center takes additional steps to deal with springtime muddy conditions made worse by this year's relentless precipitation.
While the facility routinely ships out horses after they have been gathered from herd management areas, the transfer of 181 horses follows an April 20 report that probed allegations of abuse at the center.
Conducted by a BLM review team, the investigation included on-site visits to the facility, interviews with those who launched the accusations and the input of John Paul Fox, a veteran animal cruelty investigator with Humane Society of Utah.
A video showing the muddy conditions and an injured horse was posted on YouTube and accompanied by allegations posted on the Cloud Foundation, nonprofit Colorado-based wild horse advocacy organization. The group has filed lawsuits against the BLM, seeking to halt the agency's roundups of wild horses and burros.
While the review team concluded the allegations did not rise to the level of abuse, it noted that unusually high rainfall coupled with local soil conditions had created an "unacceptable situation" at the facility.
"While this year has been particularly bad, the problem of excessive mud at the center is not new and has been a challenge for several years," the report said.
At the time of the team's visit, there were 461 horses at the facility, a number abnormally high in part due to a February roundup that the team said exacerbated the situation, "pushing the seasonal capacity of the facility to its limits."
The center, which was established in 1995, was originally contemplated as a seasonal center where captured horses could be prepared for adoption. Those preparations range from freeze branding to gelding of male horses and administration of medical care, such as vaccinations.
Over the years, the facility has been strained as adoptions have significantly dropped off compared to previous years, as the economy has taken a nose-dive and the need to round up horses has continued.
Gus Warr, the Utah BLM Wild Horse and Burro manager, said the Herriman center can hold up to 700 animals in the summer, but the hilly terrain makes it difficult to safely handle that many horses in the wet months of winter and spring.
Jared Redington, the facility's manager, said straw has been used to help control the muddy conditions, and the piles of manure and mud are moved around to give the horses as much dry space as possible.
"But it has been a really tough year for weather," he said.
Fox said it is typical in years like this when precipitation is heavy and water has pooled for him to get four to five calls a week from people concerned about horses standing in water.
"I get flooded, pardon the expression, by those kinds of calls," he said. "Unless it is physically harming the animal, it's not a violation of the animal cruelty statute."
Fox said the video only showed what was in "plain view" of the woman who shot it.
On his visit to the facility, Fox said he was given full access to the center and its pens and was able to "see things that were not in the video," including areas that were suitably dry enough for the horses.
The BLM report did note that past efforts to improve drainage and control mud at the center have not worked, with some improvements that proved dangerous to the horses such as a concrete curb and gutter drainage system. Both were subsequently removed.
A long-term solution to the problem remains under review, Warr said.
The review team's recommendations said the agency should consider a number of options, such as making the facility seasonal only, reducing the overall capacity year-round or relocation of the facility elsewhere in the valley.
The center, at its current site at the mouth of Butterfield Canyon, is a popular summer destination for horse lovers, hosting an average of 800 visitors a month.