Animal rights groups say that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's proposal to relocate thousands of mustangs to preserves in the East and Midwest would compound years of federal mismanagement of the horses.
They want the 37,000 horses now roaming federal lands in the West to remain despite the risk of starvation and conflicts with cattle. In response to Salazar's proposal, they reiterated their stand during the Bush administration: let the mustangs run loose on millions of acres of federal land where beef cattle are raised.
"Why are we, a cowboy nation, destroying the horse we rode in on?" asks Deanne Stillman, author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. "We may be heading toward the point where we only have wild horses in zoos."
Tom Gorey, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages the rangelands, said the federal government is aware "of the heritage and symbolic importance of these horses." Even so, the bureau says, the cost of keeping the horses at a sustainable population is far too much.
"We're protecting horses, rangelands and the taxpayer," Gorey said.
The wild horse population, which ranges largely in Nevada, keeps growing, as does the cost to the bureau to maintain them. This year alone, the cost of the horse program will be an estimated $50 million, the bureau says.
Much of that money goes to care for and feed 32,000 horses rounded up and taken off 29 million acres of federal land. The Bureau of Land Management says the land cannot sustain such a large horse population.
Taxpayers currently pay to let the horses live out their lives at 11 private pastures and corrals in Oklahoma, Kansas and South Dakota. The horses can be adopted, but few are.
Gorey said the agency needs to reduce the wild herd size to 26,600 horses and to neuter enough horses so the breeding population drops to 17,500.
Salazar's plan is to spend $96 million buying and configuring two ranches and contracting with five private ranches. The properties and what states they would be in have not been identified.
Horse advocates such as Stillman accuse the bureau of consistently favoring ranchers with low grazing fees and say this latest proposal is in keeping with that policy.
"We have almost 300 million acres of public land in the West, and they (the horses) are going to come East. ... That's ridiculous," says Chris Heyde, lobbyist for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington.
The bureau denies favoring cattle ranchers.
"We don't remove horses so we can put cattle on the range," Gorey says. "We're not trying to make room for more cattle grazing."
Some cattle ranchers like the solution offered by Salazar, himself a former rancher.
Dan Gralian, who manages a large grazing range out of Battle Mountain, Nev., and is president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, calls the plan "a great thing, taking this icon of America back to where it originally came from, the East."
He says wild horses and burros are in the West because they were brought there by pioneers, cattle barons and prospectors. He disputes the contention of horse advocates that the horse is indigenous to the West.
"We were here first — that's the bottom line," Gralian says, referring to cattle ranchers.
Fencing in and sterilizing horses violates a 1971 law that protected the West's wild horses and set aside land for them to roam free, says Ginger Kathrens, a filmmaker who has done documentaries on the mustangs.
"We'd like to see our wild horses staying free roaming on public lands we already own," she says. "If we return some of the holding horses to the land, we think that would be a better solution than sticking them on tourist attractions in Ohio."
Makendra Silverman, associate director of the Cloud Foundation, agrees.
"It's a bad idea because the nation deserves and wild horses deserve to live on their rangelands in the West, on public lands," she said.