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Activists Decry Horse Roundups

Federal officials have begun rounding up at least 2,500 wild horses from Nevada rangeland, triggering protests from animal advocates who say the trapping endangers these symbols of the American West and condemns them to lives in captivity.

The protesters are organizing demonstrations around the country Wednesday to pressure the Obama administration to impose a moratorium on roundups by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They want to halt the practice of sending captured horses to Midwestern pastures and holding pens, where some are adopted but most remain for the rest of their lives.

"We are very, very disappointed this is happening under the Obama administration," said Suzanne Roy, program director at In Defense of Animals, a group that has sued in federal court to halt the roundups. "This will devastate the herd and have a devastating impact on the horses left behind."

The BLM contends the roundups are necessary because there are more wild horses than Western lands can support. Allowing the herds to grow unchecked will lead to starvation and suffering by the horses while destroying grazing land used by cattle ranchers, said Tom Gorey, spokesman for the BLM in Washington.

"Herd sizes double about every four years," Gorey said. "To put a moratorium on gathers (roundups) would be untenable."

Helicopter wrangling

The BLM and contracted horse wranglers used two helicopters Monday as they began trapping wild horses that have roamed on more than 850 square miles of rangeland in northwestern Nevada.

Heather Emmons, spokeswoman for the BLM in Nevada, said 20 or more horses were captured by midday and the roundup will continue for as long as two months, until at least 2,500 horses are taken off the range.

The helicopters skim the ground to chase horses into pens, where they are trapped and trucked to holding facilities at Fallon, Nev., for evaluation, veterinary treatment and branding, Emmons said. She said the agency intends to leave 800 to 900 horses from this herd on the range.

Older horses will be sent to permanent holding facilities in the Midwest while younger ones go to short-term facilities and will be put up for adoption. Rates of adoption have been falling, and Gorey said the agency expects about 3,500 horses to be adopted in the next year.

More than 34,000 wild horses and burros are kept by the federal government in corrals and pastures, primarily in Oklahoma and Kansas. The government estimates that 33,000 wild horses roam on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states, half or more of them in Nevada.

About 30 protesters gathered Sunday at a conservation area near Las Vegas, demonstrating against the roundup. In Defense of Animals said it was organizing a demonstration Wednesday outside the San Francisco office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in the hope of spurring political support for their call to halt the roundups. Other protests were planned in Chicago, Boulder, Colo., and elsewhere, said Makendra Silverman, associate director of the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado-based group that tries to protect mustangs.

'Situation is unpatriotic'

The fight over taking wild horses off federal land has intensified in the past two years since the BLM under the Bush administration proposed - then backed away from - a plan to euthanize unadoptable wild horses in captivity.

Under the Obama administration, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed buying land to create national preserves and sanctuaries in the East and Midwest as permanent homes for mustangs. Horse advocates have opposed Salazar's plan as a dressed-up version of the status quo combined with aggressive roundups they say would threaten the future of wild horse herds.

"The situation is unpatriotic," said Deanne Stillman, author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. "What represents freedom more than wild horses? We are a country born in hoof sparks. . . . I do think most Americans are not happy about this stripping away of our heritage."

Celebrities including singers Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow and former Playboy models Shane and Sia Barbi have tried to call attention to the issue. "We must act now before the BLM has managed these magnificent animals into extinction," Nelson said.

Advocates say that trapping in winter threatens the horses' health because of cold temperatures and rugged terrain, and that the actions separate foals from mothers.

Emmons of the BLM said winter trapping is better because the animals are at lower elevations and can be captured in shorter distances with less stress.

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