03/09/2006 01:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

George Bush Is No Richard Nixon: Defrocked, Late Prez Tried to Save Wild Horses

People keep comparing George Bush to Richard Nixon. In one respect, nothing could be further from the truth. In 2005, President Bush signed legislation that will destroy our greatest icon - the wild horse. In 1971, President Nixon signed legislation protecting it. This was the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, a hard-fought bill brought to lawmakers by Wild Horse Annie, a Nevada character who saw blood spilling from a truck hauling mustangs to the slaughterhouse, then dropped everything and spent the rest of her life trying to save them. Now, those trucks are revving their engines again. Starting on March 10, 7200 wild horses in government pipelines will begin to make their way to the three horse slaughterhouses in this country - which are owned by France and Belgium.

In 1900, about 2 million wild horses roamed the West. By 1950, there were 50,000. Today, there are about 25,000 - perhaps spelling doom for the mustang. What happened? World War I, the pet food industry, and cattle ranchers, who contend that the remaining wild horses steal food from 3 million cows on the range. In the old days they hired contractors to gun down mustangs and bring them the ears. Today, Big Beef still hires guns - politicians who set policy for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that presided over a recent fixed grazing study yet is supposed to protect the wild horse. Now, the animal America rode in on is facing its meanest battle.

Last year, Montana Senator Conrad Burns, who once referred to Bush as "the man who wears the spurs," attached a rider to the '05 appropriations bill, permitting the BLM to sell horses it has rounded up that are over 10 or haven't been adopted by the third try through its own program to be sold to the lowest bidder. But ten is not old for a horse, and it's not unusual for a horse to remain unadopted on the third try - there are barely enough adopters to take in the thousands of available horses (but props to those who do, including the US Marine Corps Color Guard, which trains palominos from the Nevada range for parade duty - naming some after famous battles, including Montezuma Willy and Peking). Days after Bush signed the bill, 36 horses criminalized as "three-strikers" ended up at the killer plants. A nationwide outcry led to a new bill, temporarily halting such sales by cutting off funding for federal meat inspectors at the slaughterhouses. But Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns - a friend to the meat lobby - has done an end-run around the legislation, granting petitioners of the slaughterhouses permission to hire their own inspectors, beginning on March 10, unless there is enough public comment to stop him.

Last week, the second bell for the mustang tolled. With thousands of wild horses about to hit the market, the BLM announced a partnership with the Public Lands Council, urging public lands ranchers to buy wild horses for ten bucks each (less than the cost of a halter, as Bobbi Royle of the Wild Horse Spirit sanctuary points out) and put them back on the range. But the Public Lands Council consists of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the American Sheep Industry, and the Association of National Grasslands - the very people who have been trying to expunge wild horses for years. Wild horse advocates fear that some ranchers, businessmen after all, will turn around and sell the horses to the slaughterhouse, or short of that, revert to an old method of population control - let them stay on the range but make it impossible for them to get to water by fencing off the source. Making the plan even more suspicious is the fact that the wild horses are simply not returned to the land which supposedly could not support them in the first place.

Conrad Burns is right - George Bush is wearing the spurs. And he's driving our greatest partner off a cliff. So next time you see Montezuma Willy and Peking at a parade, take a picture, wave the flag, and say good-bye. Or, join the posse and stop the horse thief at the pass. "Wild horses and burros merit man's protection historically," Richard Nixon said, "for they are a living link with the days of the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the western Indians and pioneers, to our own day when the tonic of wilderness seems all too scarce. More than that, they merit it as a matter of ecological right - as anyone knows who has ever stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free."