SALT LAKE CITY — The head of Utah's wild horse and burro program said Wednesday there is no doubt the repetitive churning of helicopter blades used in "gathers" are traumatic to the animals.

But Gus Warr also stressed that using helicopters beats the old-time methods of the past.

"Using saddle horses and roping and choking them down — well, this is the best alternative we've got given their sheer numbers," he said.

Warr was fielding questions at a hearing held as a part of a federal requirement and also to bolster an initiative announced last year by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Warr said the initiative is aimed at developing a new comprehensive and long-term strategy for management of the country's wild horse and burro population.

The changes come in large measure due to the findings of a Government Accountability Office report in 2008 that 70 percent of the agency's wild horse and burro budget was spent to care for unadopted wild horses. That allocation — nearly $30 million — left less money to manage the wild horses and burros on the ranges of 10 western states, including Utah.

The report stressed that under present budget demands the program if unchanged is unsustainable.

The Utah wild horse and burro population numbers 2,700, and local Bureau of Land Management managers oversee the annual gathering of an estimated 400 horses to help control populations.

Helicopters have been used as part of the program since the mid-1970s as well as motorized vehicles that carry out such functions as transporting horses to holding facilities, ferrying them to adoption events, and day-to-day tasks at holding pens.

Herd areas targeted this year for population reductions include Winter Ridge in Uintah County, Confusion and Conger in Millard and Juab counties, Sulphur in Iron and Millard counties, North Hills in Iron and Washington counties and Chokecherry and Mount Elinor in Beaver and Iron counties.

While much of Utah's rangeland may be wet because of the storms that have swept through the area in the past six weeks, the summer will bring drought conditions that compromise water and forage for the animals.

"Gathers" are planned beginning in August. The BLM uses helicopters to facilitate moving the animals toward a holding pen from which they are then transferred for medical care and examined for adoptability.

"Using helicopters and other advanced equipment is crucial in our efficiency and maintaining safety in wild horse management," said Jared Redington, Salt Lake wild horse and burro facility manager. "We have found the use of helicopters is the most humane method in gathering horses from the open range and remote mountains where they live."

A Department of Interior report, however, acknowledges that over the years, public opposition has grown increasingly against gathers, the use of helicopters, the use of fertility control, and overall handling and treatment of the animals.

Although criticism in lawsuits has been directed at the BLM in several neighboring states, Warr said that has not been Utah's experience. "We've not seen a lot of it in this state," he said, pointing out the agency has a good relationship with a number of horse advocacy groups.

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As part of the anticipated overhaul of the wild horse program, Warr said a number of options are on the table for consideration. Such options include the creation of entirely non-reproducing herds, establishing BLM-operated public preserves, and emphasizing certain "treasured herds" as a way to boost tourism and enhance horse viewing opportunities.

Two documents regarding changes to the wild horse program are out for public comment until Aug. 3. They can be found at The proposed changes are due to be presented to Congress by Oct. 1.