For three decades, the Bureau of Land Management required people adopting wild horses to prove over the course of a year that they could adequately care for the animal before the agency would grant legal ownership.
A month-old law allows the bureau to sell horses that are 10 or older, or that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times, without the waiting period. However, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced legislation in Congress on Tuesday that would restore the prohibition on the commercial sale and slaughter of wild horses and burros.
"We've got to get the number of animals down to appropriate management levels and keep them there, but do it in a way that doesn't bankrupt us," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who sponsored the amendment that changed the law.
Barb Flores of Fort Collins, a board director for the American Mustang and Burro Association, said the Burns amendment could doom many of the auctioned animals.
"Horses can be purchased for a token and immediately sent to slaughter, ending up on restaurant tables in Europe and Japan," Flores said.
Emotions run high for wild horses, a beloved symbol of the West that has been here since the first Spanish explorers came to the New World 500 years ago. An estimated 3 million mustangs roamed the sagebrush country at one time.
"We feel, through this new directive, we will have to be more aggressive in finding people to adopt animals rather than selling them for slaughter, but it will take awhile to put a plan in action," she said.
Nationwide, more than 8,400 horses in seven BLM sanctuaries could fall under the new law, but the agency expects the majority will be adopted.
Flores, of the American Mustang and Burro Association, and Toni Moore, secretary of the Colorado Horse and Burro Coalition, said they believe cattle producers are at the bottom of wanting the horses moved.
Terry Frankhauser of the Colorado Cattleman's Association said that the horses near Rangely aren't being managed appropriately.
"But it should be remembered, livestock producers and wild horses have been living on the same land for more than 100 years," Frankhauser said, and compromise can be reached.
Prior to 1971, it was common for government hunters to round up wild horses, shoot them and sell them for dog food or glue.
Through the work of Velma Johnson, the Nevadan known as Wild Horse Annie, the Wild Horse and Burro Act passed unanimously in Congress, stopping the practice of killing the horses randomly and setting up the adoption program instead.
It is that law Burns amended so excess numbers of horses that meet the 10-year or three-time adoption rule can be sold and instant ownership granted.
"We really don't know exactly what we are going to do about this amendment, but I know there are a number of groups that are willing to fight it," Flores said. "Keep in mind, less than 3 percent of the beef sold in markets today comes from range cattle, yet they are tying up millions of acres in 11 Western states.
"They are kicking the wild horses off to maintain a ranchers' welfare program, and it isn't right," she said.
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