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Mustangs' Safety Returns to National Debate

There's a move afoot in Congress to restore protections for wild horses and burros after new rules allowed 41 to be legally slaughtered.

June 12, 2005|Scott Sonner | Associated Press Writer

PALOMINO VALLEY, Nev. — They are revered as majestic, galloping icons of the American West -- or reviled as starving, disfigured varmints that rob ranchers of their livelihood.

Wild horses and burros are again stirring emotional debate from Western rangelands to the halls of Congress after 41 horses were slaughtered legally in April for the first time since the federal government outlawed the practice in 1971. The ban was repealed in December.

Backers of a measure in Congress to reinstate protection for the mustangs evoke romantic images of the free-roaming palominos.

"It is a beloved literary figure, a character in a movie or television show, a symbol of adventure, a friend of the cowboy and an important part of our history," Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) said during the House debate.

Opponents, mostly Western Republicans, say the measure is unnecessary because the Bureau of Land Management has since taken steps to make sure that no more of the nation's 31,000 wild horses and burros are sent to the slaughterhouse. They say the measure, passed by the House and headed to the Senate, comes primarily from Eastern city slickers who don't understand the ways of the West.

"In Nevada, horses do not always look beautiful like the horse that we see in 'Black Beauty.' Sometimes they are misshapen. Sometimes they are deformed," Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) said.

The debate is the latest in a decades-old turf battle that is literally about the turf -- the grass, the forage that grows in wet years and disappears just as quickly in drought.

More importantly, it is a fight to determine who or what gets to eat that grass -- the mustangs that roam federal lands in 10 Western states or the livestock that arrived with the pioneers more than a century ago. It's about ranchers who think that the government has no business imposing its misguided will in the West and horse lovers who fear that the mustangs are doomed without the protection of Congress.

"What this is really about is the fact that we have 18,000 permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management to ranchers in the West," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who is co-sponsoring the protection measure with Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.).

"They are grazing over 8 [million] or 9 million cows on this land, and we are talking about 31,000 wild mustangs and burros," he said. "We all like a good steak.... But we also have a responsibility to protect wild mustangs and burros who are native to this country, who have been protected in this country."

The controversy is back in Congress because Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) opened the door in December to disposing of old, unwanted horses to clear space in holding pens for more horses, which would be captured to ease what the BLM and Western ranchers say is an overpopulation of the animals on the open range.

"Our wild horses are already competing for scarce sources of food and water on rangelands in arid states like Nevada, causing many of them to waste into skin and bones," said Republican Rep. Jon C. Porter of Nevada, home to about half of the 31,760 nation's horses and burros.

The BLM wants to reduce that total to about 28,000, the population the agency thinks can thrive on the range without interfering with other uses of the land. But the horses reproduce quickly; herds double about every five years.

Rachel Buzzetti, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Assn., comes from a family of longtime ranchers in Elko County. She supports the changes that Burns made to the law because "the BLM's arms are tied by the federal act."

"People really need to get out and see what's on the land and observe the resources -- the grasses and the water -- in both good years and bad," Buzzetti said. "We've been in five to seven years of drought so it's been pretty tough on the horses and on all animals.

"People in the East who've never seen a feral horse assume they are romantic things out in the wild. The reality is pretty cruel, and Mother Nature is too," she said.

Horse-protection advocates say livestock cause the most damage to rangelands because cattle and sheep congregate around water holes, while horses act more like native wildlife, roaming large expanses of land.

"Wild horses are not to blame for rangeland destruction. They are not starving to death," said Chris Heyde, policy analyst for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation.

Some advocates estimate that more than 1 million wild horses and burros roamed the West at the turn of the 19th century and as many as 60,000 were present when President Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

"There is not an overpopulation problem. There's a serious question as to whether the population is actually dwindling beyond repair," said Nancy Perry, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

BLM officials refuse to estimate the historical size of the wild herds but agree that it's an exaggeration to say the horses are starving.

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