By SCOTT SONNER
RENO, Nev. - The U.S. House approved an amendment on a voice vote Wednesday that would cut the Bureau of Land Management's budget by $2 million in protest of the agency's wild horse roundups that some critics say are too costly and others say are inhumane.
"It is just a drop in the bucket when you are talking about this overall cost problem we are facing, but it is one I hope will send a very strong message to BLM to treat these mustangs in a humane way,"' said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., co-sponsor of the amendment.
Over the past 10 years, the cost of BLM's wild horse management program has tripled to $64 million. About $37 million of that was spent last fiscal year on housing the gathered horses at BLM corrals and leased pastures - a 30 percent increase from the previous year, said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
"Instead of using that to fix this broken wild horse management problem, they permanently removed another 10,000 wild horses and burros and put them into tax-funded long-term holding pens," he said.
BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said the agency had no comment on the House vote.
Moran said there were once millions of wild horses in the West, but today there are more in captivity in BLM holding facilities - about 40,000 - than the 30,000-plus that roam the range.
Congress declared the horses protected in 1971.
"We said they were entitled to the greatest protection possible as they were fast disappearing from the American landscape," said Moran, also a co-sponsor of the amendment to an omnibus spending bill still under consideration in the House before it moves to the Senate.
"But rather than maintain them in their natural state and allowing them to be free, we capture them, often causing harm and death," he said.
The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General said in a report on BLM's program in December that it found no evidence of inhumane treatment of animals and concluded the roundups are necessary to cull the overpopulated herds, which naturally double about every four years.
The office added, however, that BLM needs to step up its research into population control methods for wild horses to help curb the spiraling costs of rounding them up. At the end of the last fiscal year, BLM was managing 38,365 wild horses and burros in 180 different herd management areas on federal lands covering about 32 million acres in 10 western states.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said during House debate on Wednesday that he agreed there is a major problem' with BLM's management of wild horses and livestock on public land.
"It is too expensive and problematic for multiple uses on public lands and conserving western range lands," he said.
But if the program isn't funded appropriately and horses are not removed, "wild horses will continue to overgraze the range . which means starving horses," Simpson said.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., a supporter of the roundups whose family has a ranch, said well-meaning' horse protection advocates often from the East don't understand that overpopulated herds destroy fragile grass ecosystems to the detriment of livestock and other wildlife.
"It is Congress that has caused the problems by saying we cannot slaughter horses, yet we are not supposed to keep them in pens. We are supposed to allow them to overgraze the West," Lummis said.