SALT LAKE CITY
Federal scientists and mostly rural interests are gathering at a wild horse conference in Utah that mustang-protection advocates maintain is a thinly veiled effort to promote increased roundups and eventual slaughter of tens of thousands of animals from California to Colorado without public input.
The National Horse and Burro Summit gets underway Wednesday in Salt Lake City, a week after congressional auditors identified countless hurdles but no solutions to the growing number of U.S.-protected wild horses roaming 10 western states.
Utah officials, ranchers and even some federal officials have argued that swollen populations of wild horses, an icon of the American West, have left animals starving and rangelands damaged and depleted, while an ever-increasing backlog of captured mustangs already in government corrals costs taxpayers $50 million annually.
Horse-protection groups contend that cattle cause more damage to rangeland and say that officials kowtowing to livestock interests won't look at solutions other than euthanizing mustangs.
Those critics say the invitation-only gathering hosted by Utah State University amounts to a "slaughter summit."
"The largest stakeholder — the American public — is being left out in the cold," said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign.
Terry Messmer, a wildland resources professor at Utah State, defended the conference lineup he said was organized by "a broad coalition of horse advocates — not activist groups, but people who are concerned about the welfare of horses and western rangeland management."
"I suspect some folks are feeling they should be invited," Messmer told The Associated Press. "It doesn't have all the people out there who are interested both anti and pro. But it has a good cross-section of the science."
Aurelia Skipwirth, deputy assistant U.S. Interior Secretary for fish and wildlife and national parks, is scheduled to address the event, along with Keith Norris, co-chairman of the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition. Its membership includes a number of groups that advocate for expedited roundups of mustangs, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Association of Counties and Wild Sheep Foundation.
U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Reps. Chris Stewart, R-Utah and Mark Amodei, R-Nev., are among those invited.
Utah is spending up to $50,000 from money set aside for horse and burro programs to co-sponsor the summit, Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler told state legislators at a hearing last month.
Styler said his department has a representative on the roughly two-dozen member committee that crafted the meeting's agenda, along with representatives from the National Audubon Society and The Wildlife Society.
The three-day summit will include a discussion of the challenges that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management faces in trying to manage wild horses, something former agency director Neil Kornze characterized last year as a $1 billion problem.
A report by Congress' General Accounting Office made public last week outlines many of the challenges, noting that the BLM removed nearly 135,000 horses from the range between 2000 and 2016 while the population on the range doubled and the number of horses in holding facilities increased seven-fold.
The BLM asserts that U.S. rangeland can sustain fewer than 27,000 horses and burros, but there are more than 72,000 wild horses on the rangeland and about 46,000 in holding facilities.
The GAO report said there's little immediate relief in sight through fledgling contraception programs.
Many horse protection advocates say contraception is the only realistic solution to limit horse populations they feel have more right to roam the range than federally subsidized livestock.
The report also notes that the sale of horses gathered for slaughter is illegal under existing congressional budget language, although President Donald Trump's administration recommended changing that in a recent budget proposal.
Horse slaughterhouses are prohibited in the U.S. but are legal in many other countries, including Canada, Mexico and parts of Europe where horse meat is considered a delicacy.