The slaughters of at least 450 wild horses have brought into focus a long-running conflict between the mustangs and ranchers who both depend on the state's rangeland for survival.

Officials discovered the first mass slaughter in August when 41 carcasses were spotted by helicopter near Austin in central Nevada. Since then, other major finds include discovery of about 180 carcasses on Oct. 8-9.Officials estimate that the horses had been shot between two years ago and early this summer.

"What we have here is the kind of carnage that indicates an all-out war against the wild horses," Bureau of Land Management spokesman Bob Stewart said last week.

BLM officials refuse to comment on whether they have any suspects or leads.

Delloyd Satterthwaite, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, acknowledged speculation that the gunmen were ranchers who have grown tired of the beautiful but destructive animals.

"I'm as shocked as anyone about this," Satterthwaite said. "But it's true, ranchers don't like them. The (horse) population is out of control and something has to be done or they'll ruin it for everybody."