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Selling America's Wild Mustangs

The BLM takes a more gentle approach to sale of wild animals.

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As wranglers move the mustangs from trucks into corrals, the smell of warm dust and bunched horses rises from the fair grounds on the outskirts of this old mining town. There's excitement in the air as the jittery stallions and mares (some with foals) sort out their new surroundings.

Folks in boots, cowboy hats, and denim note the animals' behavior and conformation, jotting down their favorites. Although they try not to show it, some of them are jittery too. They've come to connect with - and perhaps purchase - a bit of Western history and tradition.

The horses here are wild, descended from Indian ponies and cavalry mounts, from the stock left behind or turned loose by settlers, and some perhaps from north African horses brought to the new world by 16th-century Spanish explorers. Captured by federal government wranglers, they're available for $125 each to those qualified to take them home.

Mariann Schoennauer, who was raised in Texas and now lives on a ranch in Happy Camp, Calif., ticks off the physical characteristics that make these animals so attractive to someone who works with horses: "They're small, they're strong, they're smart, they have tough feet. They're easy keepers. You don't have to pamper them."

But there's something more. "They're wild and free," says Ms. Schoennauer, a former backcountry ranger for the US Forest Service who now leads pack trips into wilderness areas in the nearby Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. "They really represent the freedom that Americans fought and died for. They're our heritage."

"The spirit they have is different," says Rae Parker, who's here with her family hoping to go home to Big Springs, Calif., with the year-old filly that speaks to her heart. "There's a freedom and pureness to them."

The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse program is controversial, involving animal rights and environmental questions. These beasts breed rapidly all across the Great Basin, and they have no natural predators except the occasional mountain lion. Their numbers, now totalling about 42,000, are increasing by about 20 percent a year (which means they could double in just 3 to 4 years).

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