horseThere's been a lot of whinnying lately over the fate of wild horses in the U.S.: How many there should be? What happens to the ones that get culled? Should they remain wild at all? The fates of these iconic animals has people on each side of the debate, including celebrities like Sheryl Crow, up in arms, and the clutter of opinions makes it hard to cut through to the facts. For example, is it true that the government sells wild horses for slaughter? (We'll get to the answer later.)

Horses, of course, are not native to modern North America. There were horses in North and South America millennia ago, but they died out around 13,000 B.C. The Spanish conquistadors reintroduced horses to these shores in the 16th century, and equine have played a major role in the history of North America ever since.

Today, in addition to the millions of domesticated horses you can still find in every corner of the country, around 33,000 wild mustangs roam free in 11 western states, and wild  ponies inhabit several islands off the east coast, as well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), this is nearly double the number of wild horses that existed in the nation in 1971, the year they gained protected status under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The government currently spends $60 million a year taking care of the animals, including $35 million to feed them.

Where does the rest of that money go? Some of it is spent to cull "excess" horses from public lands, and that's where the real controversy lies. Many people decry the collection as inhumane and unsafe, and fear that the horses are bound for slaughterhouses, where they will be killed and turned into meat.

BLM Director Robert Abbey denies that any horses are sold to slaughterhouses. "The BLM has not and does not sell or send wild horses to slaughter," he wrote in a recent op-ed piece. In fact, he points out that this policy might actually violate U.S. law, which he says basically requires the BLM to sell horses to anyone who wants them. Abbey also says that wild horses breed prodigiously, and herds grow at around 20 percent per annum if they are not culled. (The Sierra Club agrees with him, saying wild horse populations could double every four years if not controlled.)

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar expanded on that in his own op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, explaining why wild horses can't always remain wild: "Without natural predators, wild horse populations have grown beyond the carrying capacity of the sensitive and sparse lands on which they live, causing damage to ecosystems and putting them at risk of starvation. As a result, federal managers must move thousands of wild horses each year off the range to pastures and corrals, where they are fed, cared for and put up for adoption."

The recent arrival of nearly 1,200 wild horses at a containment center in Nevada illustrates what happens to the horses after they are collected. The animals are tested for numerous diseases—including eastern and western sleeping sickness, influenza, West Nile, and rabies—as well as equine infectious anemia. They are also dewormed, and then sent to trainers to prepare them for adoption.

Last year, the BLM, which is responsible for administering the National Wild Horse and Burro Program, adopted out about 3,500 horses. That's down from 8,000 annual adoptions less than a decade ago, a decrease the BLM blames on the high price of keeping domesticated horses. Many older horses will not even be sent to adoption events, and end up in fenced-in pastures for the rest of their lives. According to the BLM Web site, it costs $29 million a year to pen these unadoptable horses.

Meanwhile, several other complaints remain:

•    Are the BLM's methods legal? A lawsuit by a group called In Defense of Animals, based in San Rafael, Calif., alleges that the methods to round up wild horses are illegal, as is moving them away from their home ranges. The case is due to go to court this April.

•    Is the use of helicopters in these roundups inhumane? Advocate groups say the practice terrorizes the horses, and at least 38 horses were trampled to death after being chased by helicopters during collections in 2009, out of about 7,500 horses removed from the wild.

•    How many horses are too many, or too few? A roundup of the Eagle Herd in Nevada will soon reduce the number of wild horses there from 595 to 100 (pdf). That doesn't ease the fears of the people who believe that the government is trying to force wild horses into extinction.

•    Are horses being rounded up to fill some other, possibly nefarious, purpose? Some people fear the horses are being cleared out to make room for cattle ranches or natural gas development. The BLM denies these claims.

•    How many horses should there be? Willis Lamm, communications officer for the Alliance of Wild Horse Advocates (AOWHA) in Reno, Nev., wrote that the BLM's claim there were only 17,300 wild horses in 1971 is untrue, and in turn says there used to be 42,000 wild horses, far more than there are today.

On top of that, let's go back to the slaughterhouse issue. According to AOWHA's Lamm, the BLM has sold horses to people who have resold them to processing plants. And as Pulitzer Prize–winner Jane Smiley wrote last year in The New York Times, many domesticated horses (not enough, she argues) go to slaughterhouses because they are too expensive to keep healthy, too expensive to euthanize, and difficult to dispose of by either burying or cremation.

Salazar says he has a lot of plans for managing the U.S.'s wild horses in the future, including fertility control, finding new territories for them to roam, and establishing public-private partnerships to help care for the wild animals. Will any of this come to pass? Will it be enough? No matter what happens, you can guarantee the vigorous and emotional debate will continue.

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