SPARKS, Nev. — One of the most stirring symbols of the American West – mustangs thundering freely across the range – could be heading east.
The government wants to carry out what is believed to be the biggest-ever roundup of wild horses on federal land, moving as many as 25,000 mustangs and burros to pastures in the Midwest and East out of fear their fast-multiplying numbers will lead to mass starvation.
The plan is facing heated opposition from advocates, including celebrities Sheryl Crow, Bill Maher and Ed Harris, who contend the proposal is inhumane and unnecessary. They say the situation is not as dire as the government has painted it.
"The Obama administration must craft a new policy that protects these animals and upholds the will of Congress and the public's desire to preserve this important part of our national heritage," said William Spriggs, lawyer for the group In Defense of Animals.
At a daylong public hearing Monday in a hotel-casino near Reno, a federal advisory panel heard impassioned pleas from two dozen advocates who oppose Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's relocation plan. They want a moratorium on roundups until an independent count of horses can be conducted.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's National Horse and Burro Advisory Board adjourned late Monday without taking any formal action. But at least two members of the nine-member board, Gary Zakotnik and Vern Dooley, said after the meeting they support Salazar's proposal.
"It's the best and most cost-effective alternative I've seen to deal with the horse problem in my 10 years on the board," Zakotnik said.
"Considering the reality of exploding horse numbers, it's a reasonable solution," Dooley said.
Board chairwoman Robin Lohse said she expects the panel to make a recommendation sometime next year after it learns more about the plan.
The government argues that the mustang population in 10 Western states is growing so rapidly that the horses are quickly running out of food and damaging the range, in part because of drought ravaging the region.
The BLM says the number of wild horses and burros on public lands in the West stands at nearly 37,000, about half of them in Nevada. An additional 34,000 wild horses already live away from the range in federal-run corrals and pastures, and those are nearly full.
"We are concerned about the numbers," Lohse said during the hearing. "Time is not on our side."
BLM officials feel the appropriate number of wild horses and burros that can be supported on the range is about 26,600.
The agency said last year it would have to consider destroying wild horses because of their escalating numbers and the costs of caring for them. But earlier this year, Salazar said the BLM, a part of the Interior Department, would instead ship 11,500 to 25,000 horses from the range to pastures and corrals in the Midwest and East.
The exact destinations have not been decided, but Salazar believes Plains states would make the most sense in terms of water and forage, said Don Glenn, chief of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program. He said Salazar also wants at least one site in the East.
The relocation plan is part of a long-running feud over wild horses in the West, where mustangs have roamed since they arrived with Spanish settlers centuries ago.
At the hearing, horse advocates urged the government to remove cattle to free up public land for the mustangs.
"Why are cows staying and horses have to go?" asked Carla Bowers of Volcano, Calif. "This is insanity. This is not right."
But Demar Dahl, a rancher and Elko County commissioner, praised Salazar's plan.
"I've learned as a rancher that they have to be managed for their own good and for the good of other resources on the range," Dahl said.
Ranchers view wild horses as a menace to their grazing land, and the killing of wild horses was allowed until 1971. The government has made numerous efforts of its own over the years to control the population, including using a contraceptive vaccine. But capturing and injecting mares with the vaccine one at a time has proved costly and time-consuming.
In recent years, the BLM has rounded up and relocated wild horses to government-funded holding facilities in and out of the West.
Helicopters are used to drive the mustangs toward cowboys with lassos. The cowboys then put the horses onto trucks.
The California-based Defense of Animals strongly opposes roundups, arguing that the horses are an integral part of the ecosystem and that using helicopters can traumatize, injure or kill the animals.
The BLM spent about $50 million this year to feed, corral and otherwise manage the nation's wild horses, up from $36 million last year. Without contraception or other such measures, mustang herds can double in size about every four years, authorities say.
One of the most vocal wild-horse advocates is Grammy-winning singer Sheryl Crow, who has adopted a mustang herself and took her concerns directly to Salazar in a recent telephone call.
"One of the first things he said was something must be done because the horses are starving. We don't believe it," Crow said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.