TODAY | May 14, 2013
>>> we're back now. it's 7:40, with an nbc news exclusive. a battle over america's wild horses . depending who you believe, they're either seriously threatened or a menace costing taxpayers millions of dollars. nbc senior investigative correspondent lisa myers has been looking into the crisis within the government's wild horse program. good morning to you.
>> hey, matt. good morning. first, we should confirm this report contain as video about wild horses that is hard to watch. no matter where you stand on this issue, you may find this fact alarming. there are more wild horses held in captivity than living in the wild. they are american icons, symbols of the boundless spirit of the wild west. treasured by many who live near them, including singer songwriter carole king .
>> americans love freedom. these horses are the embodiment of freedom.
>> reporter: these were the final moments of freedom recently for some wild horses in utah . helicopters drove 257 of them out of the swayze mountains, chased families for miles and finally captured them in a trap.
>> i find the round-up so offensive because they're so in inhumane, so unnecessary and so cruel.
>> reporter: this scene of capture and panic witnessed many times by filmmaker ginger kates there in katherines.
>> i know their fear and freedom and in an instant, they lose both.
>> reporter: afterwards, they're splet up essentially sent to separate holding facilities. the bureau of management, blm , reported no injuries at this round-up although our cameras appear to show this foal trampled. still, at other round-ups in 10 western states , horse documents have shown brutality and death. a stallion nearly rips off his leg. wild horses zapped with shocks.
>> cattle prods. they're using cattle prods on america's wild horses .
>> reporter: horses severely weakened after running for miles. wild burrows, too, chased and hit by a helicopter. we showed some of the activist footage to the head of the blm program.
>> in your view, are those horses being treated humanely?
>> there are very heartbreaking pieces there in, absolutely. no. i would say the incidents we see there are not the way we want animals to be handled.
>> reporter: guilfoyle says those incidents are isolated and less than 1% of the horses die during round-ups. critics complain many others die later of complications.
>> what would happen if you stopped all the round-ups?
>> the population would continue to grow and grow and the range lands would continue to be overgrad overgra overgrazed.
>> reporter: blm says there are too many wild horses and the land must be managed for multiple uses including livestock and pits them against livestock useinterests who want cheap grazing on federal land . and the use of birth control for horses so there will be more land for ranchers like this.
>> reporter: what would happen if the round-up stopped?
>> i'd go broke.
>> wild horses are not receiving a fair shake.
>> reporter: this man managed the natural horses and resources until he retired in 2005 .
>> reporter: blm says there's not enough food on the range to sustain the wild horses .
>> i don't agree with that. there is enough. what really needs to be done is reduce the livestock numbers.
>> reporter: blm acknowledges in virtually every wild horse management area, livestock is allotted more forage than the horses. this is the blm holding facility in delta, utah . today, there are almost 50,000 wild horses in holding areas around the country more than the roughly 2,000 left in the open range .
>> reporter: keeping horses in captivity than the wild cost taxpayers $78 million a year. the government faces a crisis, what to do with 50,000 horses when only a tiny fraction get adopted each year.
>> let them go to slaughter house . what value are they now?
>> reporter: inside blm , there have discussions in the past about slaughtering wild horses .
>> is blm considering allowing horses to be sold for slaughter?
>> absolutely not. we never have and we never will.
>> reporter: a lot of folks have said that instead of protecting the wild horses , that blm is helping them disappear.
>> that is absolutely not true. we care about them and we're going to do our best to have them out there forever.
>> reporter: back in utah , blm says the round-ups actually keep horses from starving to death in harsh conditions.
>> reporter: so you'd rather have a wild horse starve to death and be free than live in captivity and live longer?
>> now, you tell me what's more humane or less humane, to let them die at an old age in their homes with their families or to terrorize them through these long drives with a helicopter, incarcerate them. if i were them, i'd vote to stay wil wild.
>> blm recently established new expectations for its contractors to reduce abuses but activists say the rules are weak. we asked joan guilfoyle who runs the wild horse program if she'd try to get more land or forage allocated to the horses. she said that's not her job. matt.
>> lisa myers in washington. thank