IDAHO FALLS, Idaho - Nothing says the American West like the wild mustangs and burros that live here. We like to think about the thousands of thundering hooves racing across the open range.
The mustangs have no known predator, and are protected by the Wild Free Roaming Horses And Burros Act of 1971. The act declares these animals as living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit.
There's just one problem with the picture.
There are way too many mustangs and burros on way too little ground with too little feed.
If something isn't done, there will be a crisis.
The horses run free on government held ground in 10 western states. At last count there were more than 40,000 on rangeland. That's not all of them, however. More than 50,000 wild mustangs and burros are in holding pens. Day in, day out, they live in a corral awaiting adoption.
That's not exactly the picture of wild thundering freedom most want to believe.
"Our goal is to find every horse a home," says Steve Leonard, the wild horse specialist for Idaho. "We adopted out 2,000 horses last year. There's 50,000 in holding. No way to keep up with that."
Not every mustang can run free, because the herds overbreed and run out of the amount of food available.
"Well, horses are very prolific breeders, so their population doubles every four years," says Jessica Gardetto, public information officer. "We're bursting at the seams. We have a lot of horses and not a whole lot of land to take care of them."
The Bureau of Land Management has to take care of the them. It's the law. But "at this point our long-term and short-term pastures are full," said Gardetto.
That means they have to go into holding pens and be fed hay on the taxpayer's dime. Last year, according to BLM figures, that cost was about $46 million.
So, the BLM is asking every veterinarian, every scientist, pharmacist, anyone that has an interest in the wild herds to come up with a birth-control plan.
"Find me a cure!" said Leonard. "We know the problem. Find me a way to manage these horse populations in a way that mirrors the adoption needs of the general public. If we can do that, we can take them out of holding pens and find them homes, and they'll become productive animals."
The BLM is hoping someone can come up with a birth-control option that would last several years. Then, the controversial process of gathering the mustangs by helicopter every other year for herd thinning could be reduced.
"We're looking for an answer. We hope the public can help," said Leonard.
Adoption is one answer. For $75, you can take a mustang home if you can properly provide for the animal.
"The mustang is a great animal. Sure-footed, smart, loyal," says Chris Robbins with the Idaho Wild Horse and Burro Program.
"They make great trail horses and they're loving and become attached to their owners," said Gardetto.
If history is any indication, the BLM will never adopt out as many mustangs as there are available. If there are contraception ideas out there, the BLM wants to know.
If you would like to learn more about adoption, you can contact Steve Leonard at (208) 384-3454.