RENO, Nev. (AP) - Federal land managers say they will use a new method to remove "excess" wild horses from the range in Nevada and other western states.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management for the first time is resorting to the widespread use of "bait trapping," which involves setting up panels and using food, water and salt to lure mustangs into a trap.
The move comes after animal rights advocates' growing criticism of the traditional use of helicopters to drive the animals to corrals. Activists brand the practice as inhumane, saying horses are traumatized, injured or killed as they are driven for miles across rough terrain to corrals.
"The BLM is committed to continuously improving its management of wild horses and burros," Joan Guilfoyle, BLM wild horse and burro division chief, said in a statement. "Deploying this new method of bait trapping enhances our ability to gather animals more effectively in certain areas of the West, while minimizing the impact to the animals."
But the agency also still plans to conduct helicopter roundups, she added.
Anne Novak, executive director of San Francisco Bay area-based Protect Mustangs, said bait trapping would only be justified if there really were an excess number of wild horses on the range ruining the natural ecological balance.
"BLM never provides a scientific wild horse head count - only sloppy inflated estimates to justify removals," Novak told The Associated Press. "When observers go out on the range, we see other factors devastating the land like big business extracting oil, gas and mining and ripping up the terrain, along with the old school methods of overgrazing cattle."
The BLM already has used bait trapping in densely wooded areas where helicopters can't easily move animals, and in areas where timeliness isn't an issue. Bait trapping usually occurs over a period of several weeks or months.
But the use of bait trapping to remove horses over long periods of time in a variety of locations simultaneously is a new strategy for the agency, Guilfoyle said. The concept is to capture smaller numbers of animals over a long period of time, not to gather large numbers of horses in a short period of time, she added.
For the first time, the BLM is soliciting bids for several bait-trapping contracts to remove mustangs in six zones across the West over a one-year period starting July 1.
The government's wild horse program is intended to protect wild horse herds and the rangelands that support them. About 33,000 wild horses live in 10 Western states, of which about half are in Nevada. Under the program, thousands of horses are forced into holding pens, where many are vaccinated or neutered before being placed for adoption or sent to long-term corrals in the Midwest.
While animal rights advocates complain that the roundups are inhumane, ranchers and other groups say they're needed to protect fragile grazing lands that are used by cattle, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.