HALF A century ago, a Nevada woman known as Wild Horse Annie launched a crusade to protect free-roaming horses and burros being destroyed or driven so rapidly from the Western range they faced extinction.
The equines mostly descend from those brought to the continent by European explorers but have a rich heritage in the American West. Velma B. Johnston, as Annie was more properly addressed, aroused broad support that eventually led to a 1971 law protecting herds on public lands and mandating that federal officials look after them.
Now, her romantic notion has gone horribly awry.
Through a combination of bureaucratic mismanagement and congressional neglect, the horse population has outgrown its space. As many as 8,200 animals could soon be slaughtered and sent overseas as a diner's delicacy - a drastic response that wouldn't even solve the problem.
This needless destruction of a treasured national resource must be prevented. The Bush administration should allow the condemned animals to remain in their sanctuaries until Congress puts in place a more effective plan for managing herd population in the wild and for matching excess horses and burros with adopters able to give them homes.
And not just for sentimental reasons. Disposing of these picturesque creatures that Americans have deemed worthy of special protection rewards a job done badly and punishes its victims. Further, there is an important role these horses can play in prison rehabilitation and job training, which more than justifies their keep.
The same forces Wild Horse Annie battled are still working to undermine political support for her cause. Cattle ranchers complain that wild horses compete with their herds for forage. Bureaucrats who oversee public lands complain of conflicting missions requiring them to accommodate miners, drillers and environmental protectors as well as horses and cattle. Lawmakers pay attention when there's a public clamor, but not many seem committed to the wild horse program.
Adoption is the single most important factor in keeping the wild horse population under control. Yet, as conducted by the Bureau of Land Management, the adoption program is too unwieldy to meet its goals. A consultant's plan for a more aggressive marketing operation has been largely ignored.
The agency has also dragged its feet on using contraception, another tool that would help control herd size. Thus, when the Western ranges become too crowded, horses are rounded up and taken to sanctuaries, where the cost of their care consumes an ever-larger share of the BLM budget.
Congress effectively threw up its hands last fall and passed legislation allowing horses 10 or older and those put up for adoption three times unsuccessfully to be sold for slaughter. The BLM issued a last-ditch appeal to Indian tribes and animal rights groups, and sold the first batch of 200 mares last week for $50 each to a Wyoming rancher who promises to protect them. But there are no guarantees.
A lobbying campaign kicks off on Capitol Hill today urging reinstatement of the ban on selling wild horses and burros for slaughter - just the first step lawmakers must take to fulfill their responsibility as stewards and protectors of animals as much an American icon as the bald eagle.
Next must follow development of a workable plan for managing the horse population, including marketing of adoptions through the private sector, tactical use of contraception and development of more horse training programs at prisons, for the benefit of the animals and the inmates.
The task is doable; the tools are available. What's needed are lawmakers who will live up to the expectations of Wild Horse Annie when she worked so hard to put the animals under their protection.