The federal Bureau of Land Management is considering paying ranchers in Nevada and other Western states to care for wild horses removed from federal rangeland, instead of shipping them to sanctuaries in the Midwest.
The proposal is still in preliminary stages, but BLM officials said it could save money and allow for more roundups in Nevada, where more than half the nation's 38,000 wild horses roam.
"The idea is trying to find a way to satisfy the habitat needs and care of the excess animals," said Jeff Rawson, BLM's wild horse and burro manager. "We're always trying to do this as efficiently and as cost effectively as we can."
Rawson said the agency is studying the idea, which will be presented to Interior Department attorneys to ensure it would be legal under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act and the Taylor Grazing Act.
Joe Guild, former president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said he learned of the idea last week after BLM director Kathleen Clarke briefed visiting Nevada state legislators.
Guild said federal law might need to be changed to let horses graze on ranchers' allotments, because federal land use permits currently do not let ranchers accommodate wild horses.
The Taylor Grazing Act lets ranchers graze cattle, sheep and domestic horses on federal land.
Joseph Merriam, a member of the bureau's Wild Horse and Advisory Board, said leaving wild horses in their natural habitat would be less stressful for the animals.
Some horses are now shipped to privately contracted facilities in Oklahoma and Kansas.
"They should absolutely stay close to where they are born and raised," said Merriam, a veterinarian at the Massachusetts Equine Clinic in Uxbridge, Mass.
Bobbi Royle, president of Wild Horse Spirit Ltd. in Carson City, said horses should stay on the ranch, but not under the care of ranchers.
"It's like letting the coyote in the sheep pen," said Royle, who runs a sanctuary for injured and abused wild horses.
The BLM pays an average of $1.25 a day per horse for care at long-term holding ranches. The total cost in 2004 is projected to be $6.8 million, or about 23 percent of the bureau's wild horse budget.