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for people who care about the West

Do you want fries with that mustang?

  I’ve threatened to turn Vinnie Barbarino, my horse, into mustang burgers. After a long day struggling with the stubborn creature, my stomped-upon toes swelling in my boots, I have promised to ship him off to France to be served with a side of pommes frites and a nice red wine.

Of course, I would never do it. But because of a recent revision of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Protection Act, at least 8,400 mustangs are almost certainly headed for European dinner tables.

In November, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, R, slipped a rider into a federal spending bill that lifted the 34-year-old ban on selling wild horses for slaughter. President Bush signed the bill in December. The rule forces the Bureau of Land Management to sell every captured horse that is 10 years or older, or that has been offered for adoption three times. Most of them will be sold to slaughterhouses.

When a wild horse protection act was being debated by Congress in 1971, an outraged public sent one of the largest outpourings of mail in the history of Congress, second only to Vietnam. As a result, wild mustangs were granted protection on publicly owned land and declared "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West."

My own living symbol of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West gets regular pedicures and has a penchant for sugar cubes. Vinnie has the high intelligence typical of mustangs, who have survived by their smarts and toughness, though he is scared witless of sheep, and harbors a deep mistrust of cows and also, for some reason, of striped poles. He lives a life of luxury on a ranch outside Boulder, Colo., where his days are mostly spent grazing in a large meadow, watching a parade of parents push all-terrain baby joggers along adjacent trails while sunlight twinkles on the solar paneled-roofs of the homes in the next-door subdivision. His greatest fear is that I will come at him with a bottle of fly spray.

In a twist of fate and palate, Americans do not pull up to the drive-through window and order McMustangs instead of beef McRibs. Although 50,000 domestic horses are killed each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, Americans retain a collective revulsion at the thought of Seabiscuit Stew and My Friend Fried Flicka. Not so in France.

It is ironic that our president stands tall in his cowboy boots as special interests ride off into the sunset to butcher one of the remaining icons of the American West. That France will consume most of these wild horses adds another level of irony.

In this country, even though my icon of the American West often encrusts himself with mud, a thistle-tangled forelock sitting like a tumbleweed between his ears, wild horses like Vinnie remain a potent symbol. Mustangs evoke freedom, tenacity and a rugged Western spirit. And as the Marlboro man wheezes off into assisted living and cattle get driven to pasture in semi-trailers rather than by horseback, the West is running out of icons.

Opponents of wild horses say they are tearing up the overgrazed, drought-stricken land. Thirty-seven thousand mustangs run on public lands. So do 4 million cows. I believe the numbers speak for themselves. Nonetheless, the herds clearly need to be managed in a better way. As one person who has struggled to manage one single mustang, I know that managing 37,000 of them is not an easy task. But nothing about mustangs is easy.

What works — at least in my experience — is compromise. Vinnie Barbarino and I have a deal: I no longer tie him to the fence; he no longer stomps purposefully on my toes. I do not keep him in a stall; he allows me to catch him, usually. I do not come within a 30-foot radius with a fly spray bottle; he no longer knocks small children off their feet with his head.

It works for us. And compromise in the form of sterilization could work for wild mustangs. The Humane Society has developed a contraceptive vaccine that could help keep populations down. As for the animals already penned in BLM holding facilities, at least one group of cowboys has displayed American ingenuity. They’re switching the focus of their cow-calf operation: They’re going to ranch mustangs.

Owners of Wild Horses Wyoming, who will support the horses through sponsorships, have adopted 200 of the captured mustangs and are hoping to lease enough land to accommodate 5,000 more. These kinds of creative solutions are better options for America’s wild horses than the one that comes served with a side of fries.

Shara Rutberg lives and writes in Denver, Colorado.