A new federal proposal to manage wild horses is rekindling debate over another fixture of the Western range: cattle.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week proposed moving thousands of mustangs to preserves in the Midwest and East to protect horse herds and the rangelands that support them.
Interior Department officials had warned that slaughtering some of the 69,000 wild horses and burros under federal control might be necessary to halt the rising costs of maintaining them, but Salazar said his plan avoids that.
Many horse defenders and others who had been working to save the romantic symbols of the American West and might have been expected to welcome Salazar's solution instead stampeded the other way. They want Salazar to remove livestock to make room for the mustangs and argue that cows are the real threat to the range and native wildlife.
"Any proposal to improve horse and burro management in the West should include removal of domestic livestock from public lands to make way for horses and burros and wildlife," said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians based in Santa Fe, N.M. He said too much forage is allocated to livestock in the arid West.
Wildlife ecologist Craig Downer of Nevada accused Salazar, a former rancher, of acting on behalf of those who view mustangs as taking scarce forage away from their cattle herds. Downer contends 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.
"Both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have the right to remove livestock to ensure viable, healthy populations of wild horses. But they refuse to exercise that," Downer said. "Their master is primarily these traditional ranching interests."
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said livestock grazing on the agency's lands has declined by about 50 percent since 1941, but the agency has no plans to reduce grazing levels further.
"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."
Dan Gralian, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said livestock overgrazing no longer is the problem it once was and cattle don't cause more damage to the range than horses. He said 2.5 million to 3 million head of livestock graze on public lands, down from 20 million cows and 25 million sheep in 1900.
"My reaction is they (horse advocates) are totally wrong," Gralian said. "Our public lands today are in better shape than they've been in 100 years or so."
Federal land managers provide no count for the head of livestock grazing on about 250 million acres of public land. Estimates by conservation groups vary widely, ranging from 3 million to 8 million.
Chris Heyde of the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute said he believes little has changed since the release of a 1990 General Accounting Office report that branded livestock as the primary cause of degraded rangelands.
"People blame the horses, but if left on the ranges as they should be they're not destructive at all," he said.
About 37,000 wild horses and burros roam on 34 million acres in 10 Western states, about half in Nevada. An additional 32,000 of them are cared for in government-funded corrals and pastures.
The horses and burros are managed by the BLM and protected under a 1971 law enacted by Congress. But too few of the horses and burros are being adopted as had been envisioned. Soaring numbers of horses and costs to manage them that are expected to jump from $36 million last year to at least $85 million by 2012 have prompted Salazar to propose a new approach.
The BLM has set a target "appropriate management level" of 26,600 horses in the wild, about 10,000 below the current level. In 1971, there were 25,000 of the animals on the range.
Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation based in Colorado Springs, Colo., urged Salazar to return mustangs to 19 million acres of land where they have been removed since 1971. She opposes his plan to open seven preserves, including two owned and operated by the BLM.
The agency would work with private groups on the remaining reserves, which would be located in the Midwest and East because of the West's scarce water and forage.
"It would seem that the best use of taxpayer dollars and the most humane plan for the nearly 32,000 wild horses in government holding would be to return them to their native lands," Kathrens said.
Gorey said mustangs were removed from 19 million acres where they were found in 1971 for various reasons, including a lack of water and forage.
The Public Lands Council, which represents public lands ranchers, supports the preserves as an important step in addressing growing horse populations, said Jeff Eisenberg, its executive director.
The seven preserves would hold about 25,000 horses. Many of the horses remaining on the range would be neutered and reproduction in Western herds would be strictly limited.
"It's important that we find a solution that provides for the welfare of horses without compromising the needs of ranchers who rely on grazing lands to produce food for America," Eisenberg said.