Horse lovers are up in arms about a congressional spending bill headed for the president's desk that contains a provision that eliminates federal protection for wild horses.
Several people have written letters condemning this change in public policy and warn that the provision will result in horses being slaughtered indiscriminately for human consumption in Japan and Europe.
Although wild horses and burros are cherished symbols of the untamed West for many Americans nationwide, the issue hits close to home here because the Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County is home to the largest wild horse population in Colorado.
But the Montana senator responsible for the change says it will help publicize some deficiencies in the current policy and put more emphasis on adoptions.
"It is our hope that bringing this problem to light will motivate the federal agencies and horse advocates alike and offer new opportunities to find these animals proper, caring homes," Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) told the Salt Lake Tribune in a story published Wednesday.
Conrad's language allows the Bureau of Land Management to sell horses that are more than 10 years old or have not been adopted in three attempts.
Under current policy, those animals are sent to holding corrals and then horse sanctuaries in the Midwest, where they are allowed to live out their natural lives. But the sanctuaries rob the BLM of resources for the free-ranging animals.
"The money that is being sent to us to run this program is not being spent ... managing animals on the range," Gus Warr, the wild horse and burro specialist in the Utah BLM office told the Tribune. "Instead it's going to the feeding and holding of these animals in holding corrals."
Mike Markarian, a spokesman for The Fund for Animals, says wild horses have been mismanaged by the BLM. Too many have been rounded up and put in the adoption pipeline, creating an overabundance of unadoptable animals. He says the BLM should let more animals roam freely but include humane management tools such as contraception to keep their numbers in check.
BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said it's too soon to know whether the changes will, in fact, direct more resources to herd management and adoption programs. The Interior Department did not ask for changes but will evaluate the best way to achieve herd management objectives within the framework of the new policy.
"The public expects and deserves an in-depth examination of this legislation before it's put into practice," she said. "Congress has made a decision that this is how to manage horses and we are the implementing agency, but we have a lot of questions."
For example, the BLM still is trying to determine whether the legislation is retroactive or applies only to horses that have not yet been moved to sanctuaries.
Craig resident Dona Shue, who is president of the High Plains Mustang Club and also spearheading the effort to establish the Wild Horse Monument Park, said the BLM should have emphasized population control years earlier to avoid today's dilemma.
Still, she's not averse to the policy change if it has a positive effect "on the ones that do have a chance at a good life."
"I have mixed feelings on it," she said. "They should have done more sterilizing, but I totally understand how expensive it is to run a sanctuary and keep horses ... it's a nice luxury, but I doubt the country can afford to do it forever."
The simple fact is that we have more captive wild horses than anybody wants to care for. The forage and water on public rangelands, which horses share with wildlife and livestock, cannot sustain unchecked wild horse populations. If the changes, or even the resulting public outrage, prompt more interest in adoptions, then Sen. Conrad's tactic will have been effective.
We think the BLM should continue to manage herd sizes so that the animals can enjoy their free-ranging ways. But the resources allocated for the care of unadoptable animals could be better used ensuring that wild horses stay wild or that they find caring owners.