Interior plan would move animals to grasslands in East and Midwest
By TIM HEARDEN
An organization that represents public lands ranchers is applauding U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's proposal to set up preserves for the West's burgeoning population of wild horses and burros.
The Public Lands Council asserts that Salazar's plan to move thousands of mustangs to productive grasslands in the Midwest and East is "a balanced approach" to controlling horse populations on federal lands.
The organization blames what it sees as the overpopulation of wild horses and burros for deteriorating range conditions throughout the West.
"They're trying to get the numbers of horses on public lands down to a workable level," said Jeff Eisenberg, the PLC's executive director.
"It's a festering, long-standing problem, and this is an effort at a comprehensive solution," he said. "We're glad for the attention and for an effort to be made to take it on comprehensively."
Salazar contends his proposal, which needs congressional approval, would be more cost-efficient and would prevent the slaughter of some of the 69,000 wild horses and burros under federal control.
The seven preserves would hold about 25,000 horses, while others remaining on the range would be neutered and reproduction in Western herds would be strictly limited.
In a letter to key lawmakers, Salazar wrote that wild horses that were disappearing from the American scene four years ago have returned to rapid growth.
"As wild horses have no natural predators and herds grow quickly," he wrote, "more than 33,000 wild horses live in 10 Western states. Unfortunately, arid Western lands and watersheds cannot support a population this large without significant damage to the environment."
The plan has drawn opposition from horse defenders and wildlife advocates, who argue that it's too many cows, not horses, that threaten the range and native wildlife. Nevada wildlife ecologist Craig Downer says cattle are more destructive to the range because they concentrate in high numbers around water sources instead of grazing over a wider area as wild horses do.
But livestock grazing on Bureau of Land Management lands has already declined about 50 percent since 1941, agency spokesman Tom Gorey said. The agency has no plans to reduce grazing levels further, he said.
"Livestock grazing is an authorized use of the lands we manage," Gorey said. "We think we administer the rangeland laws appropriately within our multiple-use mission."
In addition to the wild horses and burros that roam the countryside, an additional 32,000 are cared for in government-funded corrals and pastures. With the economic downturn, too few of the horses and burros are being adopted as had been envisioned under the 1971 law enacted to protect them.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the cost of holding and caring for the unadopted animals was about $29 million, or about 70 percent of the entire program budget, according to an Interior Department news release.
Salazar's plan is a response to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has warned that gathering and holding costs have risen beyond sustainable levels and told the BLM to develop a long-term solution.
Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake, Calif. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.