A government plan to round up and relocate thousands of wild horses in the West faces opposition from advocates who say the proposal is inhumane and unnecessary.
At a hearing near Reno, two dozen advocates pressed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's National Horse and Burro Advisory Board Monday for a moratorium on roundups until an independent audit of mustang numbers can be conducted.
The government wants to carry out Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's plan to relocate as many as 25,000 wild horses from Western rangelands to pastures in the Midwest and East out of fear that the mustangs' fast-multiplying numbers will lead to mass starvation.
While the panel adjourned late Monday without taking any formal action, at least two members, Gary Zakotnik and Vern Dooley, said afterward they support Salazar's proposal.
"It's the best and most cost-effective alternative I've seen to deal with the horse problem in my 10 years on the board," Zakotnik said.
"Considering the reality of exploding horse numbers, it's a reasonable solution," Dooley said.
Board Chairwoman Robin Lohse said she expects the panel to make a recommendation sometime next year after it learns more about the plan.
If the government moves forward with its plan, it would carry out what is believed to be the biggest wild horse round-up on federal land.
Among those opposed to the round-up are celebrities Sheryl Crow, Bill Maher and Lily Tomlin, who contend the situation is not as dire as the government describes, and the roundups are inhumane and unnecessary.
At the hearing, advocates urged the government to remove cattle to free up public land for one of the most stirring symbols of the American West _ mustangs thundering freely across the range. They noted non-native cows far outnumber mustangs on the range.
"Why are cows staying and horses have to go?" asked Carla Bowers of Volcano, Calif. "This is insanity. This is not right."
Demar Dahl, a rancher and commissioner in Nevada's Elko County, was one of only two people who supported Salazar's plan at the hearing. Two dozen others expressed opposition.
"I've learned as a rancher that they have to be managed for their own good and for the good of other resources on the range," Dahl said. "You have to control them or damage to the range is incredible."
Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation based in Colorado Springs, Colo., called for the firing of BLM officials who oversee the wild horse program.
"The current schedule of roundups would result in a nail in the coffin for many small herds," she said.
Terri Farley, author of the popular "Phantom Stallion" series of children's books, presented the board with more than 200 letters from children who oppose Salazar's plan, which she says could cause horses to become extinct in the wild.
"Children will grow up to believe wild horses were like unicorns, existing in only stories," Farley said. "We want to protect the American wild horse and ensure a lasting legacy for our children and grandchildren."
Jeremy Drew of the northern Nevada chapter of Safari Club International said his hunting group supports Salazar's plan because mustangs adversely affect wildlife.
The government argues that the mustang population in 10 Western states is growing so rapidly that the horses are quickly running out of food and damaging the range, in part because of drought ravaging the region.
The BLM says the number of wild horses and burros on public lands in the West stands at nearly 37,000, about half of them in Nevada. An additional 34,000 wild horses already live away from the range in federal-run corrals and pastures, and those are nearly full.
"We are concerned about the numbers," Lohse said during the hearing. "Time is not on our side."
BLM officials feel the appropriate number of wild horses and burros that can be supported on the range is about 26,600.
The agency said last year it would have to consider destroying wild horses because of their escalating numbers and the costs of caring for them. But earlier this year, Salazar said the BLM, a part of the Interior Department, would instead ship 11,500 to 25,000 horses from the range to pastures and corrals in the Midwest and East.
The exact destinations have not been decided, but Salazar believes Plains states would make the most sense in terms of water and forage, said Don Glenn, chief of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program. He said Salazar also wants at least one site in the East.
Horse advocates accuse the government of grossly inflating mustang numbers, saying they believe the count is more like 15,000 horses in the wild. They'e seeking an independent analysis of the population.
The relocation plan is part of a long-running feud over wild horses in the West, where mustangs have roamed ever since they arrived with Spanish settlers centuries ago.
Ranchers view wild horses as a menace to their grazing land, and the killing of them was allowed until 1971. The government has made numerous efforts of its own over the years to control the population, including using a contraceptive vaccine. But capturing and injecting mares with the vaccine one at a time has proved costly and time-consuming.
In recent years, the BLM has rounded up and relocated wild horses to government-funded holding facilities in and out of the West.
Helicopters are used to drive the mustangs toward cowboys with lassos. The cowboys then put the horses onto trucks.
The California-based Defense of Animals strongly opposes roundups, arguing that the horses are an integral part of the ecosystem and that using helicopters can traumatize, injure or kill the animals.
The BLM spent about $50 million this year to feed, corral and otherwise manage the nation's wild horses, up from $36 million last year. Without contraception or other such measures, mustang herds can double in size about every four years, authorities say.
One of the most vocal wild-horse advocates is Grammy-winning singer Sheryl Crow, who has adopted a mustang herself and took her concerns directly to Salazar in a recent telephone call.
"One of the first things he said was something must be done because the horses are starving. We don't believe it," Crow said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno also contributed to this report.