It's one of the iconic images of the West -- wild horses running free on the range. But over the past week, the U.S. government has been holding one of its largest roundups ever because of mustang overcrowding.
The horses live on federal land about a hundred miles north of Reno. The area is roughly three times the six of New York City. But federal officials say overpopulation of horses has led to an imbalance of nature, including not enough land for grazing cattle.
“The fact is right now we have three to five times the population of wild horses that the range can sustain,” Bob Abbey, director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, told The New York Times.
The roundup is one of the most contentious issues in the West, where growth, water rights, farming, recreation and preservation are often at odds. Suzanne Roy, a spokeswoman for In Defense of Animals, said the horses should be allowed to stay put.
“Wild horses have tightly knit bands,” Roy said. “This shatters the social structure; foals are separated from their mothers; the horses are put in a very unnatural situation. The whole thing is just a major trauma and terror for these really beautiful horses that have lived peacefully on these lands for hundreds of years.”
But the government claims the roundup, which it refers to as a "gather," would ultimately save the lives of the horses.
“If it were up to them (animal activists), we would be allowing wild horses to starve to death, which is no way to honor an American icon,” he said.
Most of the older animals are moved to pastures that provide lots of room and abundant food. The younger horses are put up for adoption, though the government has struggled to find qualified people who want to adopt, particularly in the recession.
About 70,000 wild horses and burros live on government land in 13 states.