for National Geographic News
For many Americans, wild horses are living symbols of the rugged independence of the United States' pioneering past.
In the early 1900s millions of mares and stallions roamed the West. Today the numbers pale by comparison. Only 37,000 wild horses and donkeys remain on public lands, primarily in Nevada, Oregon, and Wyoming.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has been responsible for preserving and protecting the herds for more than three decades, plans to further reduce the population to 28,000 by the end of this year.
That concerns wild-horse advocates who worry the animals may one day entirely disappear from the rangelands. Further raising their ire is recently passed federal legislation that could send thousands of animals currently in government holding facilities to slaughter.
Hearty, smart, and virtually lacking natural predators, wild horse herds can nearly double every five years.
To ensure western rangelands have adequate food and water for the animals to survive, the U.S. government conducts periodic round-ups, removing thousands of horses and donkeys each year.
The animals are then adopted or put into long-term holding facilities indefinitely.
Currently 24,000 wild horses and donkeys are housed in government-run facilities.
"These animals live in poor conditions that often lead to their deaths, and without proper management this will continue to happen," said Montana Republican Senator, Conrad Burns.
The senator attached an amendment to a spending bill that allows for the outright sale, for slaughter, of wild horses and donkeys older than ten years old and animals that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption at least three times.
The bill, which passed in December, removed restrictions that had been in place since 1971 and prevented wild horses from being sold commercially.
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