Wild horse advocates who reject the government's claim that 32,000 horses are overrunning parts of the West say some of the millions of cattle grazing public rangeland should be removed before any more mustangs are rounded up.
With more than half the wild horses located in Nevada, opponents of the roundups have been staging weekly demonstrations the past two months at the state capitol in Carson City.
They also have picketed in front of the Bureau of Land Management office in Reno to protest the BLM's efforts to cut wild horse populations nearly in half across the West.
"If the BLM truly feels our public lands are being so greatly damaged by grazing animals, why aren't privately owned livestock on our public lands being reduced in number as well?'' asked Bonnie Matton of the horse advocacy group, We the People for Wild Horses and Burros.
BLM officials and ranching industry leaders say they have been reduced. The number of cattle grazing on public lands has dropped dramatically over the years, they say, to about half the number that were on the range when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971.
They say an overpopulation of wild horses is harming the range and threatening the overall well-being of the horse herds at a time when much of the West remains in the grip of a five-year drought.
"If the horses are causing damage, then get them off the land,'' said Doug Busselman, vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation.
"There is an accountability with permits to make sure the livestock are managed properly but there is nobody who manages the wild horses,'' he said.
Even with the roundups, the government has been unable to keep pace with the wild horse herds that grow by about 20 percent each year, Busselman said.
"It's like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon,'' he said.
Horse protection advocates say the federal agency, the ranching industry and its political allies exaggerate the number of wild horses on the range and their effect on the environment compared with the damage caused by livestock.
"My experience in going to a lot of Nevada Legislature subcommittee hearings is you never hear about there being too many cows on public lands. It's always the horses,'' said Betty Kelly, a retired Carson City physician and leader of Wild Horse Spirit Ltd.
"You could remove all the wild horses and it wouldn't make a difference in the amount of forage on the range,'' she said.
The government doesn't keep statistics on how many cattle graze federal land. Horse protection advocates estimate the number at 2 million to 4 million, and the National Cattlemen Beef Association puts it at 1 million to 2 million, spokeswoman Karen Batra said.
The statistic the BLM keeps is the number of animal unit months, or AUMs, approved for grazing allotments. An AUM is the forage it takes to feed a cow and a calf -- or five sheep -- in a month.
In Nevada, AUMs have declined from 2.2 million in 1971 to 1.2 million in 2003, BLM spokeswoman Maxine Shane said.
Sen. Dean Rhoads, chairman of the state Senate Natural Resources Committee, said ranchers have been giving up portions of their grazing allotments to horses ever since the 1971 law was passed.
"The forage the wild horses are getting now is actually what the livestock industry had to begin with,'' Rhoads said. He said the mustangs also are driving off deer and other wildlife.
"Where I ranch in Tuscarora, it used to be one of the best deer hunting areas in the state, but now you very seldom see a deer,'' Rhoads said. "It's not cattle, it's wildfires and horses.''
Shane rejects the horse advocates' claims that the ranching industry's political muscle drives policy on federal land.
"I understand where they get that from past history, but that's not what I see happening now,'' Shane said.
"We manage for multiple use. There's a place for livestock, horses and wildlife,'' Shane said. If drought forces the emergency removal of horses, cattle also are removed, she said. "We try to remove the horses before they eat themselves out of house and home.''
From one-half to two-thirds of the horses rounded up each year find new homes through the BLM adoption program, and most of the rest are sent to long-term facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma. Some are kept temporarily in corrals like one in Palomino Valley just north of Reno.
In Nevada, where the horse population topped 25,000 in 2000, the BLM removed more than 6,000 wild horses and burros from federal land in each of the 2001 and 2002 fiscal years, and an additional 4,086 horses in 2003.
The agency wants to round up 5,500 horses in Nevada this year and again in 2005 to get the population below 14,000. But budget shortages have allowed for only 1,444 horses to be removed this year.
Without additional roundups, Nevada's population of wild horses will again top 22,000 by next year, the BLM projects.