MARTIN GRIFFITH Associated Press Writer SPARKS, Nev.
One of most stirring symbols of the American West mustangs thundering freely across the range could be heading east. The government wants to carry out what is believed to be the biggest-ever roundup of wild horses on federal land, moving as many as 25,000 mustangs and burros to pastures in the Midwest and East out of fear their fast-multiplying numbers will lead to mass starvation. The plan is facing heated opposition from advocates, including celebrities Sheryl Crow, Bill Maher and Ed Harris, who contend the proposal is itself inhumane and unnecessary. They say the situation is not as dire as the government has painted it. "The Obama administration must craft a new policy that protects these animals and upholds the will of Congress and the public's desire to preserve this important part of our national heritage," said William Spriggs, lawyer for the group In Defense of Animals. He and other advocates spoke out Monday at a hearing on the proposal, held by a federal advisory panel at a hotelcasino near Reno. The panel adjourned late Monday without making any formal recommendation. The government argues that the mustang population in 10 Western states is growing so rapidly that the horses are quickly running out of food, in part because of drought ravaging the region. The federal Bureau of Land Management says the number of wild horses and burros on public lands in the West stands at nearly 37,000, about half of them in Nevada. An additional 32,000 wild horses already live away from the range in federal-run corrals and pastures, and those are nearly full. "We are concerned about the numbers," Robin Lohse, chairwoman of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, said during the hearing. "Time is not on our side." The BLM said last year it would have to consider destroying wild horses because of their escalating numbers and the costs of caring for them. But earlier this year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the BLM, a part of the Interior Department, would instead ship 11,500 to 25,000 horses from the range to pastures and corrals in the Midwest and East. The exact destinations have not been decided, but Salazar believes Plains states would make the most sense in terms of water and forage, said Don Glenn, chief of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program. He said Salazar also wants at least one site in the East.