WASHINGTON - The House voted yesterday to prevent the government from selling off for slaughter any wild horses and burros that roam public lands in the West.

The 277-137 tally would restore a 1971 law preventing the Bureau of Land Management from selling the animals for commercial processing. The protection was removed in 2004.

Supporters described the wild animals as American icons and said they were ending up on the plates of diners in France and Japan. The House voted last year and in 2005 to end the sales; the Senate never took up the issue.

"This is the latest overwhelming vote to stop the barbaric practice of horse slaughter, and it's now time for the entire Congress to finish the job," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

About 29,000 wild horses and burros were on public lands as of February, and the number should grow by a couple of thousand with births of foals this year, said Lili Thomas, a national wild-horse and burro specialist at the Bureau of Land Management.

Thomas said the agency wanted the number at 27,000 to 28,000. On average, the agency removes 10,000 wild horses and burros a year, but the number falls as the herd size gets closer to management levels.

About 5,500 animals are adopted each year, and the agency spends about $23 million caring for those rounded up and not adopted or sold, she said.

The bureau halted sales of wild horses and burros in 2005 after 41 horses it sold were killed. Sales resumed under tougher limits against sales for slaughter.

The bill is the first of two horse-slaughter measures Congress is expected to consider this year. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would outlaw horse slaughter nationally.