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Ken Salazar: Frustration riding high over his wild horse plan

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While his department's handling of the oil-slick crisis in the Gulf continues to draw scathing criticism and political blowback, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has another ecological headache brewing out west over his wild-horse program. And judging from a public workshop held on the issue in Denver today, it's only going to get worse.

Declaring that the Bureau of Land Management's 40-year effort to protect and manage wild horses and burros on public lands had been ineffective, last year Sheriff Ken unveiled the Salazar Initiative, a $100-million proposal for aggressive population control that includes fertility drugs and relocating thousands of excess horses to pastures and "preserves" in the Midwest and East.

But so far the plan has only generated more controversial round-ups and acrimony from wild-horse activists, who distrust BLM's motives and competence.

In an attempt to win support for the Salazar plan, BLM's National Wild Horse and Advisory Board held a public workshop at the Magnolia Hotel in downtown Denver, drawing participants from across the country. But the conversation among grazing interests, horse lovers, conservation agencies, lawmakers and others, while mostly cordial, also illustrated just how complex the problem is--and how impotent the feds have been in devising decades of management strategies that simply haven't worked.

The BLM plan to designate "treasured herds" in order to attract ecotourists, for example, was met with skepticism by all sides. Some questioned whether that meant undesignated herds would suffer or if such status could be conveyed without changes in the 1971 law extending protection to wild horses and burros. The costly plan to develop preserves for rounded-up horses also raised more questions than answers; while the current system has placed almost as many horses in long-term holding pens (at astronomical expense) as the 38,000 still on the range, most of the folks at the workshop suspect the cash to acquire and develop preserves would be better spent improving BLM's current rangelands.

By far the sorest point, though, is the battle over what constitutes a "sustainable" herd. The BLM is intent on more round-ups and fertility control in order to avoid a nightmare scenario; one official projected that, unless aggressively managed, the herds would swell to 76,000 horses in another four years, requiring a 16,000-horse roundup every year just to keep at that level.

But activists contend that the BLM has exacerbated the population problem by disrupting herds, removing older stallions and leaving their "harems" vulnerable to younger "bachelor" mustangs; in other words, bad management has led to more overpopulation than no management. Many insisted on the need for more public input, better research, and fewer roundups in order for existing herds to remain genetically viable.

Still, Salazar and the BLM have a clock ticking--and a plan that has to be presented to Congress soon that will transform the huge cash drain that's the wild mustang program into some kind of ecotourism incentive plan. That's a tall order for any agency already dealing with the staggering economic and ecological impacts of the BP disaster--and for activists, who realize their mighty symbol of wild America has little cash value when up against the multiuse demands on public lands.

"The horses don't make anyone any money," one audience member noted. "But they mean a lot to us."

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