After more than 30 years of roaming federal lands free of any threat of the slaughterhouse, wild mustangs, which have become synonymous with the spirit and heart of the American West, can now be sold and butchered for meat if the Bureau of Land Management cannot sell them elsewhere.
In December, Congress repealed a 34-year prohibition on the slaughter of wild horses and required the government to sell the unwanted ones. Many ranchers complain that the horses are eating up forage needed for their cattle.
More than 37,000 burros and wild horses, whose ancestors once sped Pony Express riders to their destinations, roam federal lands in 10 Western states.
Arguing that the wild mustangs would starve on crowded federal lands or languish in cramped pens after being captured in government roundups aimed at thinning the population, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) attached an amendment to the omnibus appropriations bill signed by President Bush in December.
Under the Burns amendment, BLM, the agency charged with managing the wild horses, must sell animals older than 10 and those that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption at least three times. About 8,400 animals would be for sale.
"It's an atrocity," said Betty Kelly, co-founder of the advocacy group Wild Horse Spirit in Virginia City, Nev. "They really don't care about these horses. They just want them off public lands."
Federal law allows BLM to remove excess wild horses and burros from the range to keep herds at environmentally sustainable levels. The agency runs an adoption program that averages 6,000 to 7,000 adoptions a year. But the population, which doubles every five years, has grown too large to allow the animals to continue roaming freely, BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said.
"We do have a population issue we must deal with," he said.
The lifting of the slaughter ban has kept aides in Burns's Senate office busy fielding angry calls from horse lovers from New York to Los Angeles.
"People have this Hollywood image of Black Beauty running free suddenly being rounded up by helicopter and marched off to the slaughterhouse. That is absolutely not what is going on here," said James Pendleton, a spokesman for Burns. "The last thing he wants to see is these horses mistreated."
". . . We are faced with them either starving to death or being kept in feedlot-like conditions. That's not them being free."
Horse advocates across the country are pushing a bill introduced by Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) in Congress last month that would restore the ban on the commercial sale and slaughter of wild horses, as well as a second measure that would outlaw the slaughter of horses for human consumption.
BLM officials said they are working with animal advocacy groups and Indian tribes to find long-term homes for the unwanted horses. There is no time frame for the sales, and no animals have been sent to slaughter since the ban was lifted.
"We are confident we are going to find good homes for these wild horses and burros," Gorey said. "We don't want to speculate on anything other than that."