Wild horses, those defining icons of America's myth of the West, have always symbolized freedom and the frontier. But ranchers see them as competitors for grazing cattle across millions of acres of arid range - "hoofed locusts," as John Muir once said about sheep. And like the cougars and bears that have been showing up in residential areas, they're also competing with humans for habitat.
Recently slipped into a federal appropriations bill by Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana, and signed by President Bush, was a measure allowing the slaughter and export of horse meat from thousands of animals used to running free. Horse lovers are trying to get the measure reversed.
"Wild horses" in fact are feral animals, descended from domestic stock that ran off or were turned loose on the range. The lineage of some mustangs may go back to horses brought from Europe by Spanish conquistadores five centuries ago.
But a stallion with his mares thundering across empty rangeland toward willows that mark water, or a lone horse eyeing one warily through the sagebrush, is as close as any 21st-century American is likely to get to the preindustrial West.
While the number of wild horses is far less than it was a century ago, many thousands having been killed for pet food and sport, the population, left unchecked, could grow rapidly. Except for occasional mountain lion attacks, horses in the wild have no predators. Herd populations grow about 20 percent a year, less in some years but as high as 40 percent with sufficient food supplies and the right weather.
Meanwhile, the ecologically fragile high desert - some 200,000 square miles, mostly in Nevada but encompassing parts of California, Oregon, and Utah as well - suffers encroachment from urban areas as well as grazing damage from competing domestic stock. Stacked up against suburbanites or ranchers, wild horses seem to be at a political disadvantage.
But organizations such as the American Horse Defense Fund and the Wild Horse and Burro Freedom Alliance are rallying their troops and supporters.
Their champion in Congress is Rep. Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia, senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee. Together with a group of Republicans as well as Democrats, he's pushing a bill that would reverse the new law allowing the killing of wild horses.
"To suggest that an acceptable solution to a federal agency's management shortcomings is commercial slaughter is an irresponsible approach to our public lands and the wildlife that roam them," he says.
Preventing wild horses from being sold for slaughter would not end the sanctioned killing of horses for profit.
The United States exports some 10,000 tons of horse meat a year from about 50,000 domestic horses, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. That makes the US the fifth largest exporter of horse meat in the world - most of which goes to France, Belgium, Mexico, Switzerland, and Japan.
"Hippophagy" (the consumption of horse meat) has a long and varied history. Some religions forbid it. Following the orders of Leviticus in the Old Testament, kosher dietary rules do not allow eating horse flesh. The Koran instructs against it. Early Christian clerics in Europe considered hippophagy to be barbaric.
But religion faded as a factor in Europe in the 19th century just as dietary beliefs were changing as well - particularly in France and Belgium. Meanwhile, Japan took to horse meat as a teriyaki dish.
Horses headed to slaughter come from several sources: former track animals, owners unable to care for them, and foals born to "PMU mares." These are pregnant horses whose urine is used to make the estrogen replacement drug Premarin.
According to the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees 261 million Western acres, there are some 37,000 wild horses and burros on the loose - 9,000 more than "can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources." Meanwhile, 8,400 of the 24,000 animals held by the BLM could be sold under the new law. This compares with some 4 million open-range cattle grazing on public lands and, say critics, causing considerable environmental damage.
Part of the problem for the BLM is that while it finds homes for 6,000-7,000 horses and burros a year, the wild herds and the numbers rounded up from the plains every year outweigh that effort.
The measure sponsored by Senator Burns, who used to be a stock auctioneer, says that "excess animals" more than 10 years old or those "offered unsuccessfully for adoption at least 3 times ... shall be made available for sale without limitation." That means they would no longer be covered under the 1971 legislation that protects free-roaming horses and burros.
The idea, says Mr. Burns, is to reduce the growing cost of capturing and caring for such animals, which now totals about $30 million a year. The savings plus the income from the sale of excess animals would be used to promote a more successful adoption program.
"These animals live in poor conditions that often lead to their deaths, and without proper management this will continue to happen," says Burns. "And while their sale is a last resort, it is our hope that bringing this problem to light will motivate the federal agencies and horse advocates alike...."
Other lawmakers in the West agree.
"Frankly a lot of [wild horses] are starving to death and hurting our ranges," Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "As a veterinarian, I know there are times when you have to make very difficult choices."
While eastern Democratic lawmakers are leading the congressional charge against Mr. Burns's controversial measure, it is taking hits from the right as well.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) from the bluegrass state of Kentucky pronounced himself "appalled" that wild horses and burros could now be captured for slaughter.
"Horses that are sent to slaughter are often crammed into double-decker trailers, where conditions are so bad that many horses arrive at the slaughtering facility injured," Mr. Whitfield said in a House of Representatives speech. "Moreover, since there are no export tariffs on horse meat, no profits from this industry remain in America."
Back in the 1950s, a Nevada woman named Velma Johnston started a grass-roots campaign to prevent ranchers, hunters, and "mustangers" from harassing and killing wild horses. She became known as "Wild Horse Annie," and her effort led to passage of federal legislation protecting the animals. Horse lovers today hope a similar public outcry will work again.