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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Mustangs fight in the Onaqui Wild Horse Management Area in Skull Valley in Tooele County on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018.

DUGWAY — Splashy colored bands of wild horses looked healthy Tuesday morning in a field adjacent to the sprawling expanse of Dugway Proving Ground.

The rangeland? Not so much.

Gus Warr kicked a cowboy boot at the Russian thistle, an invasive plant that appeared to be the one of the few surviving species of vegetation in the area.

Aaron Thorup, Bureau of Land Management

He pointed to some mountains east of the horses, noting how they were full of vegetation, but the bands of horses were acclimated to the lowlands.

"I wish as a manager I could whisper in their ear and tell them what to do," said Warr, who supervises the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program in Utah.

Warr spoke to members of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Tuesday in front of Utah's show-and-tell herd of wild horses, who have become so habituated to humans it is easy to walk among some of them.

The Onaqui herd rambles through Skull Valley on the eastern edge of the Dugway Proving Ground, sporting close to 500 members.

The BLM sets the "appropriate management level" for this population at between 121 and 210 animals, so they are nearing a tripling of their ranks.

Board members, plus wild horse advocates, examined the rangeland conditions, got a close-up look at the animals and delved into some policy discussions.

The tour is in advance of a two-day meeting in Salt Lake City Wednesday and Thursday at the Courtyard Marriott where board members will discuss a wide range of management strategies for the animals and listen to public input.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Mustangs fight in the Onaqui Wild Horse Management Area in Skull Valley in Tooele County on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018.

According to the BLM, wild horse populations across Utah and the rest of the West are beyond a tipping point.

In 2017, there were 86,000 animals, but targeted management goals are at 26,715, according to the agency. The herds can double in size every four years and increase in size by 15 to 20 percent each year.

Adoptions are failing to keep pace, officials noted, resulting in 60 percent of the agency's $81 million budget devoted to keeping horses in long-term holding pens at a lifetime cost per animal estimated at $48,000.

"The forage problem is serious," said board chairman Fred Woehl. "We need more tools in the tool box … it is a complicated issue that over the years the BLM has not been proactive enough on."

The BLM uses both its staff and trained volunteers to dart the horses for fertility control, but there are critics who question its effectiveness.

During the next two days, board members will be discussing an array of management options for wild horse and burro populations, with varying degrees of aggressiveness to reach population targets, including $1,000 cash incentives for adoption as well as a euthanasia program or slaughter sales. Those options are detailed in a report released to Congress.

After the board came up with a list of recommendations in 2016, Woehl said he received 4,000 death threats on an issue that is highly emotional for advocates, rural leaders, cattle ranchers and others.

Advocates contend there is a wide range of options at the agency's disposal that don't include euthanasia, including expanding the geographic territory of wild horse management areas.

Ginger Kathrens, executive director of The Cloud Foundation, attended the tour Tuesday.

"It's not too late to begin to do the right thing," she said.

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Advocates plan to deliver at least 250,000 signatures on a petition during the Thursday session of the national board meeting, asking the agency to cease its roundups of wild horses.

Kristin Bail, who works in the BLM's national office as assistant director for resources and planning, said the wild horse issue promises to be contentious as solutions are hammered out.

"People are passionate about it and there are no easy answers," she said. "We work hard to have conversations about this, and not debates."