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Animals & Money: How much to save our wild horses?

Madeleine and T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire couple who swooped in to New Orleans with a rented jet and saved hundreds of dogs and cats after Hurricane Katrina, announced this week they plan on saving 35,000 wild horses from potential slaughter by creating a new home for them.

The horses -- representing about half the current population of the west's wild horses -- are in danger because the Bureau of Land Management, which manages (or mismanages, depending on who tells the story) wanted to eliminate them. The BLM manages 33,100 horses in 199 herds in 10 states.

The BLM also wants to cut the wild herd to 27,000 -- that's down about 18% from its current level and about 1% of its population of about 2 million in the 19th Century. Plus, they have another 30,000 in custody -- up from 9,800 in 2001. Critics say there's no reason for the reduction and no proof the horses are hurting the land.

Every year the BLM rounds up horses for auction. Those that don't get adopted, the BLM pays to keep on ranches. In other words, the BLM is taking care of them like they're the federal government's pets at a cost of about $21 million last year and an expected $28 million this year -- most of the agency's budget.

The BLM is technically allowed to euthanize the horses if they can't find an adoptive home. But they are squeamish about that because they know the public would be outraged. What they'd rather do is sell them at auction and not require people to sign a pledge that they're going to make a nice home for them. That way, they'd be sold to what are known as killer buyers, who transport them to Mexico or Canada to be slaughtered and sold for meat. (They used to be slaughtered here, but that was effectively banned, thanks to the efforts of horse lovers, including Pickens.)

Now the Pickens' have pledged to buy or rent enough pastureland to keep them. The Denver Post reports they're thinking looking at several pieces of land that range in price from $10 million to $50 million. The Mercury News says we're talking about 1 million acres.

The big difference in what the Pickens are proposing is that they're going to sterilize the horses. One of the big problems with the BLM system is that they've shunned that kind of population management. The Humane Society of the United States has been perfecting a horse contraceptive method for decades. It works and they're continually making it easier, but the BLM hasn't bothered with it. The Humane Society also says the problem is the BLM is turning horse land over to cattle ranchers, who consider the horses pests. (See related petition.)

A GAO report this week recommended that they come up with another way to deal with their extra horses.Their new resolutions calls for them to reconsider those methods -- as well as paying more attention to the male-female balance of herds.

If the Pickens' can pull this off, they're saving the day not only for the horses, but the thousands of horse and animal lovers across the country that have been worried about their fate for months. They're also saving the day for taxpayers. Why should we be paying $30 million a year to rent pastureland for horses if we could just buy that land for $50 million? Or, come to think of it, doesn't the BLM already own a lot of land? That it could just stop leasing out to cattle ranchers and save taxpayers millions?

And in the end it will work out for Americans who will get to stay on the lands and visit their wild horses.

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