Federal officials plan to round up thousands of wild horses and burros across six Western states beginning today.
The roundups will take place through February on drought-stricken range lands in Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
Contractors for the Bureau of Land Management will use helicopters plus bait- and water-trapping methods to corral 3,500 wild horses and burros, officials said. In addition, more than 900 other horses will be captured for birth control injections and returned to range lands.
The government is already holding 47,000 horses, most of them on green pasture in the Midwest. Bureau of Land Management officials said it was a popular misconception that they send horses to slaughterhouses. The animals are protected under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
A small number of horses are put up for adoption, but most horses are kept until their final days in permanent corrals.
Owners of adopted horses must swear under the penalty of law that they do not plan to send horses to slaughter, said Heather Emmons, a BLM spokeswoman in Reno. The agency says there are 11,000 more wild horses roaming public lands across the West than belong there.
In all, 37,300 wild horses and burros are on public range lands across 10 Western states, the government says.
Officials said they have no choice but to cull wild horse herds. With virtually no predators, they say, the herds can double in population every four years.
Horse advocacy groups have been critical of government roundups .
"They aren't placing enough wild horses through adoption so they need to put a freeze on roundups," said Anne Novak, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based group Protect Mustangs. "Killing them is not a solution. Selling them to slaughter is not a solution. They need to be responsible for their actions and stop the gluttony of roundups at taxpayer expense."
BLM officials say comments suggesting they kill horses are irresponsible.
"We do not send horses to slaughterhouses," said Chris Hanefeld, a BLM spokesman in Ely.
Several multi-month roundups will get under way across Nevada starting today . Officials plan to hold those horses at pens at Palomino Valley near Reno or at Utah's Gunnison Correctional Facility until they can be prepared for adoption or sent to long-term pasture in the Midwest.
In Utah, one 400-horse roundup is planned for the Cedar Mountain herd ; 250 of those horses will be released after they are injected with a contraceptive. Roundups also will take place in two other Utah locations.