By 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 dozens of horses were slaughtered legally in April for the first time since the federal government outlawed the practice in 1971.
Backers of a measure in Congress to reinstate protections for the mustangs that were repealed in December evoked romantic images of the free-roaming palominos.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,'' said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., in House debate.
Opponents, mostly Western Republicans, said the measure is unnecessary because the Bureau of Land Management has since taken steps to make sure 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 now 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.
And 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 the government has no business imposing its misguided will on the West and horse lovers who fear 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, D-Ky., who is co-sponsoring the protection measure with Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
The bill has passed the House and is headed to the Senate.
''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 that 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 Porter of Nevada, home to about half of the nation's 31,760 horses and burros.
The BLM wants to reduce that total to about 28,000, the population the agency thinks can thrive on the range and not interfere with other uses of the land.
Rachel Buzzetti, the president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association who comes from a family of longtime ranchers in Elko County, said she supports the changes 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. We've been in five to seven years of drought so it's been pretty tough on the horses and on all animals,'' Buzzetti said.
''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 the cattle and sheep congregate around water holes, while the 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 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 it's an exaggeration to say the horses are starving.
''As far as their appearance, they do live in the wild. They are affected by the mercies of nature,'' BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said. But the agency takes emergency action to remove any horses - as it did during the drought of 2001 - before any would starve to death, he said.
''We would respond immediately if the horses are facing starvation or dehydration,'' Gorey said.
The Rahall-Whitfield amendment would repeal the 2004 Burns amendment that granted the BLM expanded authority to sell horses that are 10 years old or older or had been unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times.
That differs from the traditional adoption program because buyers receive ownership title immediately, rather than having to feed and house the animal for a year before receiving title.
The year delay in the adoption program is intended to weed out buyers who want to resell the horses. Without it, under the new sale program, 41 horses ended up at a slaughterhouse in Illinois after the BLM sold six to an Oklahoma man who claimed he wanted them for a church youth camp and 35 to a South Dakota tribe that traded them to a third party.
The BLM since has revised its rules to require buyers to sign a statement saying they do not intend to resell the horses for slaughter. They could face criminal prosecution if they do. Horse protection groups say that does no good because there's no way to prove someone's intention.
Several Western Republicans concerned about horse numbers on the range say the BLM needs the expanded sale authority to get rid of as many as 8,000 older horses that no one wants to adopt among the more than 22,000 in holding facilities.
The BLM has refused to take a position in the dispute, but acknowledges about half of the wild horse program's $40 million budget goes for long-term care of the animals.
If the population in holding facilities is reduced, Gorey said, budget savings would allow the agency to spend more money on roundups to bring the population to ''appropriate management levels.''
That's why Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and others say they voted against repealing the Burns language.
''I certainly am one who is not in favor of the slaughtering of wild horses,'' Walden said, ''but I am also ... a fiscal conservative.''
On the Net: Interior Department: www.doi.gov/horse/
National Horse Protection Coalition: www.horse-protection.org/index.php