SALT LAKE CITY — Wildlife advocates are taking a stance against Rep. Chris Stewart and the Bureau of Land Management on how to deal with the overpopulation of wild horses and burros.
At the Utah Wild Horse Rally Monday morning, nearly 30 demonstrators gathered in front of the Capitol steps in Salt Lake City to protest the euthanization, roundup and removal of wild horse and burro populations on Utah's public lands.
“There’s a war raging against our wild horses, burros and all wildlife,” said rally organizer Kristen Bullock, of Salt Lake City. “And because they can’t fight for themselves they need those like us to speak for them, stand up against their enemies and protect them.”
Demonstrators held signs with written messages like “Wild horses are more American than Chris Stewart” and “Keep wild horses wild.”
Stewart, R-Utah, and his office did not immediately respond to an email request for comment. He has spoken out in the past about regulating the wild herds.
The Bureau of Land Management legally defines wild horses and burros as “unbranded, unclaimed, free-roaming horses or burros found on public lands in the United States.”
"If the BLM performed their actual duties, then they would ensure that wild horses and burros would never run out of forage and they would never be at risk of starving," Bullock said.
The Wild Horse and Burro Program housed under the Bureau of Land Management stems from the need to manage wild horses and burros. In 1971, former President Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which allows for the management and protection of wild horses and burros in the U.S.
Lisa Reid, Utah Wild Horse and Burro public affairs specialist, said the euthanization of the animals only occurs when the animal has no chance at a healthy life. She noted that euthanasia is not a tool used to control overpopulation.
"We do not euthanize healthy horses," she said.
The bureau currently provides a financial incentive program for those qualified to adopt a horse. Reid said she's seen a 40 percent increase in adoption rates at the bureau since March.
She said a lot of the adopters are people who have adopted horses before or first-time owners who have been reluctant to adopt based on the cost associated with owning a horse.
Sonya Richins, founder of a horse sanctuary in Park City called the Wild Heart Sanctuary, attended the rally to advocate and raise awareness for Onaqui wild horses, a herd of hundreds that roams the public land outside Tooele.
"I started adopting wild mustangs that were destined to slaughter," said Richins, who currently cares for eight horses."They are up in my sanctuary running wild and free as a herd."
In 2006, Richins produced a documentary film, "Mestengo," about American mustang horses.
In December 2017, Stewart wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times on the overpopulation of wild horses titled, "The Hard Truth About the West's Wild Horse Problem."
“I love horses and view them the way most people view their pet dogs. But witnessing our nation’s wild horses and burros starve to death and overrun the range must compel us to act,” he wrote. “This year, the House Appropriations Committee approved my proposal to remove language from the Interior Department’s budget that bars the BLM from euthanizing captured healthy horses it is holding.”
According to the bureau, as of March 1 there were 5,058 wild horses and 339 wild burros in Utah. In order to “promote healthy conditions on the range” the bureau can appropriately handle 1,956 animals.
According to the bureau website, wild horses and burros that exceed the appropriate management level “are to be removed from the range.”
Reid said it could be detrimental for the animals and the environment when overpopulation occurs.
“Having too many animals and limited water resources, we start having problems,” she said. “Body conditions begin to deteriorate as well, they've eaten all the good healthy forage up, and they are traveling long distances. You can start seeing the impact when the numbers are too high.”
At the protest, a demonstrator held a sign that advocated for PZP, which stands for porcine zona pellucida, a type of contraception for horses.
But Reid said it could be difficult to come into close contact with wild animals to administer the contraception, and it’s been used on a limited number of horses.
Bullock said wild horses symbolize the "American spirit" and fears that future generations might miss out on seeing wild horses in their natural habitat if progress isn't done to help the wild horse and burro population.