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America's Wild Horses Face Uncertain Fate

At the turn of the last century, more than 2-million wild horses roamed free across public lands in the American west. But decades of poaching and culling decimated the herds, and by 1971, when they were granted federal protection through the "Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act," there were only around 20,000 left. Today a limited number of mustangs still roam public lands in ten Western states, their numbers regulated by annual roundups by the Bureau of Land Management. Late last year, without public hearings or debate, a provision was slipped into the federal spending bill that allows the BLM to sell thousands of these captured wild horses for slaughter. That's prompted horse lovers to try to save them.

At a ranch in southern California, mustangs gallop at the base of a distant hillside. They are noticeably smaller than their domesticated cousins with long manes and coats that are a riot of colors with unique tattoo-like markings.

Neda De Mayo is the founder of Return to Freedom, a 120-hectare wild horse sanctuary of rolling green hills about 4 hours north of Los Angeles. It is home to some 200 mustangs, and Ms. De Mayo knows each by name. "This is Poncho," she says, pointing to one of the horses trotting toward her. "There's Nicomas. At 5-months-old, his shoulder was broken in a roundup."

For years, the Bureau of Land Management has been conducting helicopter roundups of wild horses and burros. The aim is to reduce the herds to "appropriate management levels," as determined by the government. Over time, thousands of the wild horses have been adopted by individuals and sanctuaries like Return to Freedom, but the adoptions have never kept pace with the annual captures.

Today some 20,000 wild horses are being held in federal feedlots or on contracted private ranch land. An estimated 37,000 mustangs are left on public range, but the BLM and cattle ranchers say even that's too many. And that angers Neda De Mayo, who says, "The only thing these horses are asking for is some land and water."

But that land -- eroded by over-grazing and made worse by drought -- as well as the cost of caring for horses in federal corrals are at the center of the controversial new law which gives the Bureau of Land Management an authority it's never had before. As BLM spokesman Tom Gorey explains, "[We can sell] specific types of wild horses and burros, those more than 10 years old or those which have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption at least three times." Critics say some of those buyers are likely to be agents for commercial slaughterhouses that sell horsemeat to countries like France, Belgium and Japan, where it is considered a delicacy.

Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, the chief sponsor of the new law, says the government doesn't have any other options. "We have more than 20,000 [mustangs] being housed in feedlots across the country," he says, "because the range they come off of was not adequate to [support] the entire herd. We have to have some way to manage the numbers on our ranges so we can maintain resources that sustain the herd."

Those resources are the 105-million hectares of multi-use public land designated not only for wild horses, but also for recreation, oil and gas development and cattle.

The beef industry is an important segment of the Western U.S. economy. Preston Wright, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, says when Congress first passed federal protection for the wild horses some 30 years ago it didn't set well with ranchers. "[They] felt like it was unreasonable," he says, "unmanageable from the beginning, and it's proven to be so. And we weren't able to get this issue addressed until now." He says many Nevada cattlemen with permits to graze their animals on public land feel vindicated by the new law, because, he says, the wild horses are eating the grass meant for their cattle.

But those numbers don't add up for Jim Clapp. "You take 30,000 or 40,000 horses," he says. "That's insignificant when you compare it to 3-million cattle." The weatherworn cowboy, who once rounded up mustangs for the BLM, now works to save the wild herds. He says the Bureau cannot prove the mustangs are over-grazing the range.

Nevertheless, the BLM is planning to round up another 10,000 horses from public lands by the end of this year. It's a deep blow for Neda De Mayo who has committed her life to protecting the wild herds. "I think they stand for what we're losing as a people," she says. "They're not asking for much. You can't look at their numbers and say, they're a nuisance out there. They're just not making anyone any money." She pauses as one of the horses nuzzles her cheek. "I think they belong to the American people, because they represent us out there. They are the American spirit."