Today the beloved Onaqui horses will endure terror, chaos, confusion, loss, injury, and death. And make no mistake about it: By ignoring the pleas of tens of thousands of Americans and proceeding with the roundup of these healthy animals, President Biden’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is sending a message that exploitation of wild horses is part of its gameplan. The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act — enacted in 1971, just a year before Joe Biden took a seat in the Senate, to preserve and protect the horses and burros on our western lands — is an antique piece to them and not an operational statute for the care and oversight of our wild equids in the West living statute.
Animal Wellness Action held two public rallies, one on the steps of the Utah state capitol, the other in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., to protest the roundup gambit. The BLM brazenly pronounced on the eve of the rallies that like it or not, the roundup was happening. You could almost see the smug smirks on BLM officials’ faces as they watched news accounts of the rallies, while at the same time they doubled down on their plans to annihilate this cherished herd of horses. At the same time, the team of advocates at the American Wild Horse Campaign submitted over 50,000 signatures to the agency urging a cancelation of the roundup; tens of thousands more made calls and sends emails to the BLM’s offices, to their members of Congress, to Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, and to President Biden. The BLM’s plans for the Onaqui created an unprecedented campaign on behalf of a wild horse herd, with people all over the country, and the world, pleading for compassion. Even celebrities including Katherine Heigl, Ellen Pompeo, Priscilla Presley, and Monty Roberts weighed in with calls to stop this unwarranted act of depopulation.
While the BLM is rounding up the wild equids, it’s letting the cattle and sheep stay. There are no roundups planned for them. And after all, that’s what this is about. Any wild horses and burros on our public lands, in the minds of the BLM, are viewed as competitors with exotic livestock. BLM has forever catered to these interests, and the Biden team, despite its claims that it is addressing climate change, isn’t doing a wit about livestock’s long shadow. Look at the drama playing out today with these horses to see the truth in that observation.
This agency, which is an encyclopedic case example of industry capture, wants to leave no doubt who is calling the shots — and who is not — when it comes to what happens to our public lands and the wild creatures who call them home.
The BLM is fully aware of the thousands of visitors, tourists, and photographers who have developed a global fan base for these horses. They have seen the photos, the social media pages, the blogs, all devoted to the Onaqui. They regard our celebration of the Onaqui horses’ rugged beauty, their strong family bonds, and their love of freedom and liberty, with something like cynical amusement. They scoff at the notion that horses care about losing their freedom and families, just as they scoff at Onaqui followers bestowing charismatic stallions with names like Old Man, Buck, Charger, Goliath, and Moondrinker. We the American people don’t love the Onaqui as some faceless population of wild animals. We love them for their individual natures and personalities. The BLM knows all of that that, but they want us to know, loud and clear, that to the BLM, the Onaqui horses are nothing but feral pests.
The BLM knows it is inevitable that some of these iconic, beloved horses, including baby foals and elderly mares and stallions, will perish in the summer heat while being chased by BLM helicopters. They fully expect that foals will become separated from their mothers, and will be chased by BLM “cowboys” on high-priced, mechanized horses, roped, and dragged by the neck to the traps. They know horses will crash into the trap panels and break their necks and legs. They know heavily pregnant mares may abort their unborn foals during the stress of the stampede. They know they will kill horses that arrive into the trap injured, underweight, or elderly. You think an agency who treats these animals like contemptible vermin care how they die? They don’t. And it’s important to the BLM that you know they don’t care. Again, the point here is to send a message.
As we brace ourselves for the reality that our Onaqui horses are suffering, dying, desperately calling for their families, and shipped to lives of incarceration and the possibility of slaughter, the BLM wants you, the American citizen, to be fully aware that it has nothing but utter contempt for wild horses and the people who love them. Their allegiance is not to the Onaqui, not to the American people, but to the livestock companies who will benefit by turning out thousands more cattle and sheep onto the Onaqui wild horse Herd Management Area.
Now it’s our turn to send a message to the BLM: Today we grieve for the Onaqui. But BLM, your cruelty and arrogance has filled our hearts with a deeper conviction to fight your gross mismanagement of horses and burros at every turn, over every roundup, over your complete abdication of your role in managing wild horses humanely. You have terrorized these vulnerable animals and looked the other way as cattle and sheep colonize even more of our public lands. But today we rededicate ourselves to this battle, to fight the work of an agency out of sync with the American people, disrespectful to our western heritage of protection of these animals, and disdainful of a federal law that’s been on the books for half a century.
Scott Beckstead serves as the Director of Campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and is known for his expertise in the field of animal law and has taught at University of Oregon and Willamette University law schools. In 2000, he authored Animal Law, the first casebook on the subject, and continues to teach animal law, wildlife law and policy, and the Endangered Species Act as an adjunct professor of law at Willamette University. In addition to his service at AWA, Beckstead provides training to law enforcement agencies on how to handle and work with horses and livestock, and how to investigate equine and livestock cruelty and neglect.