Two lawmakers are saddling up to save wild horses.
Reps. Raul Grijalva,D-Ariz., and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., are trying to restore a 34-year-ban on the commercial sale and slaughter of wild horses and burros after it was lifted four years ago.
They introduced legislation following the Bureau of Land Management's controversial announcement last year that it is considering killing large numbers of wild horses taken from the rangeland.
"Congressmen Rahall and Grijalva are seeking to protect the rightful place of wild horses on our public lands in the West and to stop the misuse of tax dollars on inhumane round-ups," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society.
"They have been tireless in their efforts to correct the past mismanagement of this program and to get the program on the right footing."
But the bureau says it's stuck between a rock and a hard place because it has few options to manage wild horses that aren't being adopted, and the costs for keeping them in a holding facility are overwhelming its budget.
"We're the bad guys," Tom Gorey, a bureau spokesman, said about the public campaign animal welfare advocates are waging against the bureau.
"They're looking at the situation and failing to realize we're a multi-use agency," he said. "We don't just manage horses in the bureau."
The bureau is spending $27 million of its $36 million budget to hold 34,000 horses, or three-fourths of its budget. Of those horses, 3,700 were adopted last year.
"There's no adoption market to speak of," Gorey said. "It's very weak."
Gorey said the bureau is reprogramming $20 million in its budget to pay for the holding costs and has told lawmakers that it would need $85 million by 2010 to continue holding the horses without destroying them.
"Congress has shown no inclination to fund us at a higher rate," he said.
The bureau is defying the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which requires excess animals not being adopted to be destroyed in the most humane and cost-efficient manner possible or, under certain circumstances, be sold without limitation.
The bureau has chosen not to slaughter the horses out of concern over public and congressional reaction.
"All we said last year is we need to consider legal options to humanely put down excess horses for which there is no adoption demand," Gorey said.
Since 2004, when the ban on slaughtering or selling horses was lifted, only 2,900 horses have been sold. Two incidents in 2005 led to 41 horses being resold and slaughtered. As a result, the bureau warned potential buyers that they could be subject to prosecution if horses ended up in a slaughterhouse.
But this isn't enough for lawmakers. Grijalva and Rahall introduced their legislation last year and it was passed by the House. But the legislation got stuck in the Senate and the lawmakers had to introduce the legislation again this week for the new Congress. Aides to the lawmakers hope the legislation will be passed by the end of the year.
"It's been an ongoing issue and the wild horses were symbols of the West," said Natalie Luna, an aide to Grijalva. "And a lot of people who live in the West where they roam free have asked for the protections.
"We hope the Bureau of Land Management will want to cooperate with the needs and voices of the constituents," she said.