The Associated Press reports this morning that the Bureau of Land Management is investigating the shooting deaths of a small number of mustangs that had been part of a free-roaming herd on BLM land in Nevada. The horses were spotted by a helicopter pilot during a roundup about 120 miles north of Reno. BLM spokesman John Dearing speculates that “it could have been a few good ol’ boys whooping it up.” (Read the full story at

At first blush, the idea of anyone shooting free-ranging mustangs sounds downright appalling. Like the buffalo and bald eagle, wild horses are a powerful symbol of the Western landscape and way of life. When you picture the frontier, your mind’s eye sees unbridled ponies galloping across a dusty frontier, snowy mountains rising in the background. After the cowboy himself, is there a better icon of freedom than the mustang?

But dig a bit deeper into the issue of wild horses on federal land, and the story gets a bit more complicated. In some quarters, the proliferation of mustangs is seen as a significant problem. Current estimates put the number of horses in the West as high as 70,000, and the number is growing–in part because the horses’ natural predators (mainly mountain lions and grizzlies) have shriveled to a few small pockets of survivors. Some ranchers say the horses have become a nuisance and drain on their grazing allotments. Frustration occasionally boils over, and that may be part of the reason for a spate of mustang shootings in recent years.

That conflict is part of the reason that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently proposed a somewhat-controversial plan to relocated about 25,000 horses to government lots in the Midwest and East. (Read more from Interior at The idea is to reduce the pressure on Western lands, but opponents flinch at the cost. They point to the millions that the feds are already spending to control and maintain the dispersed herds of wild horses and burros, and the millions needed to move 25,000 across the country. In 2009 alone, the DOI budget reached almost $30 million for the maintenance program alone.

Of course, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the total federal budget, but 30 big ones is still real money. My question is, what’s it worth to protect this iconic symbol of the West? If the program’s budget increased to $40 million to accommodate the relocation proposal, the cost to every American is about 10 cents a year.

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