To equestrians who visited Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the animals were a vision from California's pioneering past -- a herd of wild horses that had roamed the harsh desert of Coyote Canyon for a century.
To park officials they were a symbol of neglect -- an abandoned and malnourished band of creatures clinging to life, devouring plants and water crucial to native wildlife.
Concerned about the animals' health and their effect on surrounding habitat, park officials rounded up and removed them a year ago. But a bill by state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) would return them to the canyon that supporters see as the animals' rightful home.
"This herd has been in existence in that area for over 100 years," Morrow said. "It's the last free-roaming, wild horse herd in Southern California, maybe in California.... That's not something you take away willy-nilly."
The herd of a few dozen animals wandered into the park sometime in the early 1900s and subsisted there until their removal last year. The animals munched desert scrub and drank at the creek along Coyote Canyon, a 20-mile-long ravine at the park's northwestern end, delighting wild horse enthusiasts who rode in to view the herd.
"There's nothing more thrilling than to see horses running in the wild," said Kathleen Hayden, Southern California trail director of the California State Horsemen's Assn. and public lands liaison for Backcountry Horsemen of California. "To see them running and frolicking in the spring grasses -- it's just a sight to behold."
But park officials were alarmed when the horses became emaciated during the dry weather of 2002. Photographs from that summer showed the animals with patchy coats and protruding ribs. Equally worrying were findings by scientists with the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center that the animals were fouling the creek and competing for scarce water with endangered peninsular bighorn sheep.
In March 2003, park officials asked four equine experts to observe the horses' condition.
Thanks to winter rainfall, the animals had recovered some of their weight and luster. Nonetheless, the four observers rated them in poor condition and noted that the horses had overgrazed their habitat and littered it with manure.
"In regard to the health status of these horses, it must be said that they are walking a fine line between survival and extinction," wrote Greg Ferraro, director of the UC Davis Center for Equine Health.
"In my opinion it is inhumane to allow these horses continued suffering in an environment that cannot adequately support them," concluded Joe Cannon, an equine veterinarian at San Luis Rey Equine Hospital.
Park officials declared the horses' condition an emergency and arranged for their immediate removal by a livestock roundup company. Although 34 animals had been observed the previous summer, only 29 were evacuated, leading officials to conclude that five had died.
Nineteen mares and foals were transferred to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota, and the rest were placed for adoption or remain at a Bureau of Land Management holding facility in Ridgecrest, Calif.
The animals at the horse sanctuary arrived traumatized and "very, very thin," said Susan Watt, program development director for the facility. They have since gained weight and range across a 15-square-mile area in three mare groups.
But critics of the evacuation complain that the animals were removed without public notice. They say that the horses' plight was exaggerated and that the observers incorrectly compared their rangy appearance with the sleek condition of domestic equines. The Anza-Borrego herd, some members of which were more than 20 years old, had long adapted to desert cycles of heat and drought, they say.
"By wild horse standards, they were in fine shape," Morrow said. "They weren't stark, they weren't dilapidated, they weren't emaciated. Desert sun and desert heat and the drought conditions that existed at that time are hard on all animals."
Approached by local equestrians, Morrow introduced legislation that would return the herd to its former range. The bill is expected to be considered in the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee on Tuesday. Conservation groups have opposed the bill and suggested that Morrow was using the legislation in a grudge against park management. In 1996 the then-assemblyman was cited by a ranger for illegally "turning doughnuts" -- a stunt-driving maneuver -- at Clark Dry Lake in the northeastern part of the park.
Morrow was visiting the park to examine an area of Coyote Canyon that was closed to off-road traffic. He has recently introduced a bill to create an alternate vehicle route around that portion of the canyon.
"Ever since Sen. Morrow got caught doing doughnuts, he seems to have it in for the park," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. "He seems to be abusing his position as a state senator by introducing destructive legislation that should be shot down."