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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Wild horses in are pictured near Simpson Springs on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's wildland managers say they plan to take a half-million dollars given to them by state lawmakers to put on a national wild horse forum to address the animal's explosive population growth, plus use the money to carry out rangeland restoration projects.

The forum, set for three days in August, will seek solutions to tackle the wild horse numbers — now in Utah at more than twice the Bureau of Land Management's targeted levels — and the hope is that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will accept the invitation to attend.

Nationally, there are 73,000 wild horses roaming in Western states on federal lands managed by the BLM. The targeted management level is 27,000.

An estimated 45,000 animals are in long-term holding pens at an annual cost of $50 million, or the equivalent of the nation's wildfire fighting budget in an active fire season, said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Styler briefed members of the Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee on Wednesday, detailing the challenges Utah and other states face when it comes to the animals.

In the last legislative session, Utah lawmakers gave his department $500,000 to manage wild horses and burros, but his agency lacks the regulatory oversight.

Some of that money will go toward the Aug. 22-24 forum to look at the science behind the problem and potential solutions, while the majority will be used in watershed and rangeland restoration efforts to help land impacted by the animals.

Ben Nadolski, the state department's legislative liaison, said the agency will be able to take legislative appropriation and leverage it to bring in additional funds for eight projects scattered throughout the state.

Agencies sifted through needed restoration projects and settled on that list that comes with a $2.4 million price tag to treat more than 15,000 acres of rangeland in the state, he said.

Some of that work includes fencing off school trust lands property denuded of vegetation or removing pinion and juniper through a variety of methods.

Utah and its rural county leaders have been ramping up the pressure on the BLM to control the wild horse population in the state, which is at 5,215 wild horses and 313 burros as of March. The targeted level by the BLM is 1,956 animals.

They have some hope due to Zinke's newly unveiled budget for the Interior Department, which proposes to remove language that constrains the federal agency from using "management tools," that could include eliminating restrictions on shipping the horses to slaughterhouses or euthanasia.

But Scott Beckstead, the rural outreach director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the only publicly acceptable way to combat the problem of too many horses is with birth control.

"Any proposal that includes sending these horses to slaughter for human consumption is going to be a nonstarter for the American public," he stressed, emphasizing that 80 percent of Americans don't want to see horses hanging from meat hooks in French butcher shops.

"The outcry will be massive," he said.

Horsemeat is considered a delicacy in France and other parts of Europe.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Provo, took offense at his words.

"I didn't hear anything about slaughter" in the committee's discussion, she said. "I guess that was just for a talking point. … We are concerned about the numbers that are being slaughtered by overgrazing and lack of food. And that is a slow death, not a fast death."

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Beckstead countered that any discussion that turns on broadening the "management tools" for wild horses implies slaughter or euthanasia as an answer, when politicians and land managers should be looking at the number of privately owned cattle on public land.

In Utah, he pointed out, there are 22 million acres set aside for cattle for forage, while wild horses graze on 2 million acres.

Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, criticized Beckstead's comments on how Americans feel regarding the ways to manage wild horse populations.

"I don't know where you get the authority to speak on behalf of all the American people," he said. "I resent that. You don't have the authority to speak for all American people."