SPARKS, Nev. — One of 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 itself 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.
He and other advocates spoke out Monday at a hearing on the proposal, held by a federal advisory panel at a hotel-casino near Reno. The panel adjourned late Monday without making any formal recommendation.
The government argues that the mustang population in 10 Western states is growing so rapidly that the horses are quickly running out of food, in part because of drought ravaging the region.
The federal Bureau of Land Management 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 32,000 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," Robin Lohse, chairwoman of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, said during the hearing. "Time is not on our side."
The BLM 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, Interior Secretary Ken 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 ever since they arrived with Spanish settlers centuries ago.
Ranchers view wild horses as a menace to their grazing land and were allowed to kill them until 1971, when the practice was banned. 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 government has rounded up and relocated wild horses to other lands in the West. Helicopters are used to drive the mustangs toward cowboys with lassos. The cowboys then put the horses onto trucks.
The latest proposed roundup, however, would take the horses outside the West altogether.
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.