MORE THAN 4 million head of cattle graze on the remaining open range of the American West. Their owners pay a cut-rate fee of about $1.35 a month for each animal feeding off this publicly owned resource. Yet there doesn't seem to be enough room to also accommodate the 37,000 wild horses for which the land has been home for centuries.
Thus, Congress, in a midnight maneuver of which few lawmakers were aware, agreed to sell off some of the horses for slaughter so they can become gourmet meals overseas. They're used for grilled meat mostly, but horse sushi is quite the rage in Japan.
This solution to the space squeeze is as simplistic as it is unseemly.
The federal Bureau of Land Management does indeed seem to be making a hash of its mission to safeguard both the environment of the national range lands as well as the health of the wild horses and burros that live there. But that doesn't justify lifting a guarantee of protection extended to the mustangs by Congress three decades ago in response to public outrage at extermination tactics by the ranchers of that era -- who complained, like their modern counterparts, that horses eat too much of the forage they need for their livestock.
A provision allowing "excess" wild horses and burros to be sold for slaughter was slipped into the giant spending bill President Bush signed last week by Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican rancher and livestock auctioneer. He contends his goal is to spark a "more robust" program for adopting horses culled from herds and placed in costly holding facilities.
He could prove that by pressing the BLM to improve its publicity and marketing, and to make more use of horse advocacy groups and prison programs to train animals born in the wild. Further, horse populations could be humanely controlled through contraception -- using tactics employed with the Chincoteague ponies -- and forage can be renewed by alternating grazing areas.
What's more, the cattle ought to start paying more of the freight through higher grazing fees, though horses and burros should have first dibs on the eats.
It's not clear, however, that wild horses have any real advocates in Congress any more. Legislation to outlaw horse slaughter for human consumption has more than 200 House co-sponsors and nearly a half-dozen in the Senate. Yet it lies dormant. Meanwhile, Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign, a veterinarian and chief Senate sponsor of the slaughter ban, backs the Burns amendment, saying wild horses "are starving to death and hurting our ranges."
In an exquisite irony, the Senate voted unanimously -- just one day before adopting Mr. Burns' amendment -- to designate today as the "National Day of the Horse," observing that "horses are a vital part of the collective experience of the United States and deserve protection and compassion."
Certainly, they deserve better than winding up on someone's dinner menu.