WASHINGTON — Californian Jean Anderson says wild horses are smart and beautiful animals, symbols of the freedom and strength it took to build the United States.
To the federal government, however, they're a costly and growing nuisance.
The Bureau of Land Management says there are simply too many of them, filling holding pens and roaming freely on public lands in 10 Western states. It has a proposal to reduce their numbers: Kill a few thousand of them.
Anderson, who owns five adopted mustangs, is horrified at the thought.
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"Horses are supposed to be protected. If people don't pay attention, before they know it, there are not going to be any wild horses, and I think that'll be a great loss," said Anderson, a 59-year-old janitor from Dairyville, Calif., about 100 miles north of Sacramento.
Anderson and many of the nation's other horse lovers, including singers Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson, are out to kill the euthanasia plan. Federal officials and other supporters of the plan say it must be considered, however, because a birth-control program hasn't worked and adoptions are declining, mainly because of rising fuel and feed costs.
"The bottom line is we've run out of things to do with these animals," said Tom Talbot, a veterinarian and the president-elect of the Sacramento-based California Cattlemen's Association. He nevertheless called it a difficult issue, adding, "Nobody's excited about that possibility."
While the agency hasn't decided on a method of euthanasia, BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said the top three possibilities would be shooting the horses, giving them a lethal dose of barbiturates or killing them with bolts to the head, a method commonly used in slaughtering cattle.
"There are pros and cons to each method, but we're not at that point," Gorey said.
The government estimates that there are 33,000 horses and burros running wild in the West, nearly half of them in Nevada. Another 30,000 are in holding pens.
Either by adopting them out or selling or killing them, the agency would like to reduce the size of its herd to 27,300. The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, a creation of the BLM, will take up the issue Sept. 22. The BLM will make a final decision later, but no date has been set.
Some members of Congress want to put the plan on hold.
"The potential for wholesale killing of thousands of healthy wild horses marks a complete turnaround in management policy," said Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Congress passed a law in 1971 protecting wild horses that run free on public lands, declaring them "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West."
The BLM, which has been charged with that mission, has placed more than 235,000 wild horses through adoption in the last 37 years. It has the legal authority to sell aging horses "without limitation," meaning they could go to slaughterhouses, but the agency so far has chosen to sell them only to owners who promise to provide them with good care.
Gorey said the agency spent $22 million last year putting horses in holding pens. That's nearly two-thirds of the program's entire budget. He said the agency wasn't seeking more money from Congress but wanted the public to understand that continuing its current policy would be impossible without a bigger budget.
Opponents of the plan charge that the BLM has mismanaged its budget and now is trying to lower its costs by taking aim at wild horses.
"To set the record straight, euthanasia is mercy killing. That's certainly not what's being proposed here by any stretch of the imagination," said Chris Heyde, the deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute. "It's killing pure and simple, to balance the books for an agency whose reckless management has caused immeasurable harm to a national treasure."
Rahall said he wanted the agency not to proceed with its plan until the Government Accountability Office completed an investigation into the finances of the wild horse program. Its report is expected in September. Rahall said the agency's inability to manage its budget "is a long-standing concern, and must not be used as a death sentence" for wild horses and burros.
In a letter to the BLM, Rahall asked the agency to answer a long list of questions. Among them: How did the agency determine that it can care for only 27,300 wild horses and burros? Would the horses be killed in the wild or in holding pens? Would the public be allowed to view the killings to ensure that they're humane? What would be the cost of the mass euthanasia, including disposal of the carcasses?
Gorey said the agency was in the process of answering Rahall's questions.
From 1971 to 1982, he said, the agency euthanized about 2,000 horses. In 1982, the bureau's director issued a new policy that banned euthanasia for healthy animals. From 1988 to 2004, Congress included language in spending bills that barred the agency from using any of its money for euthanasia.
Opponents of the plan accuse the BLM of siding with ranchers who want more space and forage for their cattle.
Republican Rep. Wally Herger of California, a third-generation rancher, said adoption "is not always a feasible solution" because there were too many horses. While he hasn't taken a position on the euthanasia plan, he said the agency must "carefully examine every humane management tool" at its disposal.
Dan Gralian of Battle Mountain, Nev., the president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said the BLM must use a combination of methods to manage the horse population: Place more of them in adopted homes, increase the use of sterilization and euthanize older horses that can't be adopted.
"We think it's an option," Gralian said.
Horse advocates want to make the phones ring on Capitol Hill.
"Anytime they talk about killing wild horses, it's disturbing," said Fred Sater, a board member of the Wild Horse Sanctuary, which is home to 300 wild mustangs at its location near Lassen Volcanic National Park, in Northern California. "What it's going to take is a public outcry, to hopefully reverse that kind of thinking. People need to contact their legislators."
Rather than kill the horses, Anderson said, the federal government should think creatively. If horses were truly a top priority in Washington, she said, someone would find a place for them on the hundreds of thousands of acres that the federal government controls. And she said Congress could create a $1 checkoff on federal tax returns, with the proceeds going to the wild horse program.
"There's other ways of thinking about it, instead of just saying, 'We've got too many horses. Let's shoot 'em,' " Anderson said.