For local resident Golde Wallingford, a typically calm, sunny Idaho summer afternoon in 2004 was a life changing experience.
She and only a few others watched as a government helicopter and cowboys rounded up about 70 horses from a wild Challis herd in the eastern foothills of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains. The herd numbers about 200.
"It was something that I am sure, as time passes, will impact my life more than I realize," she said. "We climbed the hillside and watched as the helicopter slowly pushed the horses—stallions, mares and foals—down the rocky hillside toward the funnel they had set up with fencing. And the cowboys waited to push them into the holding pens."
One of the horses, trying to jump a fence to escape, broke a leg and was shot.
"I held my head in my hands until I heard the gunshot that gave him freedom," Wallingford said.
Watching the government roundup spurred Wallingford to get involved with Return to Freedom, a wild horse sanctuary based in California. Then, in the fall of 2004, Congress adopted a massive appropriations package that included a rider that allows the Bureau of Land Management to sell horses that are more than 10 years old and horses that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times.
Under the new law, those horses could end up in slaughterhouses overseas.
The Humane Society of the United States and more than 50 other animal welfare organizations are calling on Congress to repeal the new law, and two laws have been submitted in Congress that would do just that.
"This means thousands of wild horses will be taken from holding facilities or the range and sent directly to auction, where they are likely to be bought for slaughter by 'killer buyers,'" the Humane Society said in a December statement. "Killer buyers purchase and transport the horses to one of three foreign-owned plants in the U.S. that slaughter horses for human consumption in Europe and Asia."
But cattlemen have supported the measure as a means of eliminating horses they say compete with livestock for food and water. Wallingford and wild horse activist Neda DeMayo disagree.
Horses are a reintroduced wildlife species in North America, said DeMayo.
DeMayo is the founder of Return to Freedom and The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, which is a "unifying tool with a firm grassroots" that attempts to give its member groups a united front on behalf of America's wild horses.
"This is always going to be an emotional issue because the American people are always going to identify with horses," DeMayo said.
DeMayo, who has been in Washington, D.C., testifying on behalf of wild horses, said it is important to act now.
"Now it's up to us to say we want our wild horses out there," she said. "They're squirming in Washington. They know this is a big deal.
The BLM estimates there are about 37,000 wild horses and burrows roaming on public lands managed by the BLM in 10 Western states.