Thinning herds of `Americana'

SUN JOURNAL

Roundups: Advocates sue the federal government over its plans to reduce the number of wild horses, which compete with cattle for food on public lands.

February 16, 2002|By Tom Gorman | Tom Gorman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SPRING VALLEY, Nev. - The serenity of the snowy valley is broken by the distant flutter of an approaching helicopter. Flying 15 feet above the pinyon, juniper and sage, it weaves and bobs, herding a dozen wild horses toward a holding pen.

The pilot wrangles the mustangs, snorting and whinnying, toward capture. Their coats gleam with sweat; plumes of steam flow from their nostrils.

As the horses approach the pen, partially hidden behind a rocky knoll, a cowboy on a nearby hillside swats his Judas horse into action. It gallops ahead of the pack, and the wild horses instinctively follow the traitorous leader through a wide jute-fenced chute. The horses hesitate in confusion. The helicopter hovers menacingly low, scaring them forward, and they reluctantly trot into containment.

The chopper pilot returns to the far reaches of the valley, looking for more animals. Eventually, 710 horses will be captured during this two-week, government-sponsored roundup to reduce the mustang population in Nevada's eastern high desert. Most will be put up for adoption.

Such roundups landed the Bureau of Land Management in court last year over its strategy to solve a problem unique to the West: How to referee the use of 262 million acres of public land by wild horses and commercial cattle, which compete for the same forage.

Wild horses are among the West's most romantic and enduring legacies - offspring of castoffs from cowboys and Indians, miners and ranchers, pioneering settlers and the Pony Express. The future of the herds is jeopardized, horse advocates argue, by commercial cattle grazing, which depletes precious desert vegetation. They also complain that cattle fences block the horses from roaming freely.

Ranchers argue that they provide a valuable commodity - food for the table - and that if horses are allowed to overrun public lands, they will consume the cattle's feed to the roots, promoting destructive erosion and noxious weeds. Ranchers pay the government about $1.35 a month for each cow that feeds on public land.

Horse lovers have long been critical of the bureau's roundups, contending that smaller herds will bring less genetic diversity. The agency announced in October 2000 a three-year campaign to capture nearly half the wild horses - much to the delight of cattlemen. Animal groups responded in September with a lawsuit challenging the herd reductions. A federal judge in Washington is expected to rule this summer on whether the bureau's roundups are justified.

The agency says it can't satisfy everyone.

"Every special-interest group wants to maximize its ability to use public lands," said Bud Cribley, the bureau's senior wild horse and burro specialist in Washington. "The BLM is sitting in the middle ... and trying to make fair decisions on who gets to use what. It's tricky."

About 45,000 feral horses and burros roam in 209 herds from New Mexico to Oregon, with half the animals in Nevada. The horse population can increase by 25 percent every year, doubling every three years.

The bureau wants to reduce the mustang population to fewer than 27,000 animals by 2004, saving forage and saving money by having fewer horses to capture and put up for adoption. It costs $2,000 to capture and hold each horse while finding someone to adopt it.

Last year, mustang fanciers adopted 6,202 wild horses. "They're a part of Americana," said retired Air Force pilot Jack Hildum, who payed the $125 adoption fee in Las Vegas for a horse he said he'd train for trail riding.

The bureau had announced plans to capture 13,000 horses this year - double the average taken in past years. The lawsuit, filed by the Fund for Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, halted those plans. In December, a federal judge in Denver gave the bureau permission to hold the Spring Valley roundup as the last of the large ones until a ruling is issued.

The bureau will cull ailing and older horses from the 710 captured in Spring Valley and send them to pastures it leases in Kansas and Oklahoma. Only about 195 horses - those with less adoption appeal - will be set free again. The majority - the most attractive, younger, healthy ones with nice coloring - will be put up for adoption.

"The BLM is taking an aggressive [roundup] approach ... for no good reason," said Howard Crystal, a Washington attorney representing the pro-horse litigants. "The BLM is not taking a hard look at what else can be done to protect the range land."

Options, he says, include giving horses contraceptive shots to prevent pregnancies for one to two years, limiting the number of cattle grazing on public lands, and allowing predators to thin the herds.

Ranchers applaud the bureau for preserving forage for their cattle, which in areas such as this consume 10 times as much feed as the mustangs.

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