By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Federal land managers began rounding up wild horses on public land in central Utah on Monday as part of efforts to cut herd numbers and placate ranchers who say the animals destroy range land vital for cattle grazing.
Working with a pair of helicopters, a crew of U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staff and contractors captured 45 horses in the Blawn Wash area near Minersville, about 220 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, agency spokeswoman Lisa Reid said.
Over the next eight days they hope to gather a total of 140 Mustangs in Blawn Wash, one of four designated management areas in the region. Under the BLM's own rules, no horses should be in Blawn Wash and the region as a whole is capped at 170 horses.
Last week, however, agency staff counted 775 horses during a flyover, Reid said.
"They are really overpopulated, so taking 140 off of the range area will certainly relieve some pressure," she said.
About 21 members of the public observed Monday's operation, including activists who oppose the removals and say horses are far out-numbered by millions of cattle grazing on public land.
Ellie Phipps Price, a member of the California-based American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, was among them.
"Tens of thousands of Americans objected to this roundup and it was tragic to watch these beautiful wild horses lose their freedom to appease a handful of ranchers who dictate how our public lands are managed," said Price, a producer on the 2013 documentary, "American Mustang."
The gathered horses are offered to the public for adoption and cannot be euthanized.
The BLM says there are an estimated 40,000 wild horses roaming the west, many more than the 26,000 that agency experts believe can be supported by the available range ecosystems.
BLM budget constraints were expected to prohibit any roundups in 2014, but a limited plan to remove about 2,500 horses from six western states was approved after 13 Utah ranchers asked a federal judge to order the agency to conduct the gathers.
Separately, Utah's Republican Congressman Chris Stewart has introduced legislation that would turn the management of wild horses over to states and Native American tribes. He says wild horses and burros would still be protected under his proposals, but that local officials will have more control.
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Walsh)