Healthy wild horses and burros that live on federal land throughout the West would be saved from slaughter by a mustang protection bill passed Friday by the House.

Members of Congress took action after Bureau of Land Management officials raised the possibility of killing as many as 30,000 wild mustangs and burros they can no longer afford to house in holding facilities after removing them from land that cannot sustain the growing herds.

Democratic leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee said sterilization of herd members and an expanded adoption program are more humane options.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and other GOP leaders said Friday that Democrats are showing they care more for wild horses than for out-of-work humans.

The bill passed 239-185 and now moves to the Senate. Bishop and Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Jim Matheson, D-Utah, all opposed it.

"We may be willing to ration health care for humans, but not health care for horses. We have more concern with the habitat for horses than homes for humans," Bishop, chairman of the GOP Western Congressional Caucus, told the House.

He added, "From the very few people that still have jobs we are now going to take $700 million — at a minimum — out of their pockets" to solve wild horse problems that he says Democrats created by taking away management tools from the BLM.

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced the bill because of a General Accountability Office report last year that said wild-horse roundups to prevent overgrazing of public lands have led the BLM now to manage almost as many horses and burros in corrals as it does in the wild.

The GAO said the BLM may need to consider slaughtering up to 30,000 wild horses in captivity, even though its policies had banned such slaughter. (The BLM reported last year that Utah has about 3,100 wild horses on the range, and 1,300 in captivity in short-term holding facilities while others have been transferred to seek adoption.)

Rahall's bill bans killing healthy wild horses and burros; requires more scientific methods to estimate herd sizes; requires developing standard criteria for managing wild herds, including enhanced contraception; and creates a goal of expanding range for horses by 19 million acres — the amount removed for horses by the BLM since 1971.

Bishop complained, "We have already dedicated to wild horses and wild burros an amount of land that's owned by the public that is the size of the state of New York."

But, he added, "Now the solution being presented today is simply not trying to give the land managers the tools that they ask, it is to expand the amount of land equal to the size of West Virginia at a cost of $700 million according to CBO (the Congressional Budget Office)."

He said because the bill only creates a vague "goal" to expand wild-horse range, a goal that could lead to giving wild horses priority in land-management plans over livestock grazing and other wildlife.

Bishop complained, "We have a problem in this country where stimulus bills don't create the jobs we expected, our bloated budgets don't create the jobs we expected, our tax increases don't create the jobs we expected, so instead of tackling that issue … we're talking about horses."

Contributing: Gannett News Service