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All the Missing Horses

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Posted on Sep 29, 2012
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By Dave Philipps, ProPublica

This piece originally appeared at ProPublica.

The Bureau of Land Management faced a crisis this spring. 

The agency protects and manages herds of wild horses that still roam the American West, rounding up thousands of them each year to keep populations stable.

But by March, government pens and pastures were nearly full. Efforts to find new storage space had fallen flat. So had most attempts to persuade members of the public to adopt horses. Without a way to relieve the pressure, the agency faced a gridlock that would invite lawsuits and potentially cause long-term damage to the range. 

So the BLM did something it has done increasingly over the last few years. It turned to a little-known Colorado livestock hauler named Tom Davis who was willing to buy hundreds of horses at a time, sight unseen, for $10 a head. 

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The BLM has sold Davis at least 1,700 wild horses and burros since 2009, agency records show—70 percent of the animals purchased through its sale program.

Like all buyers, Davis signs contracts promising that animals bought from the program will not be slaughtered and insists he finds them good homes.

But Davis is a longtime advocate of horse slaughter. By his own account, he has ducked Colorado law to move animals across state lines and will not say where they end up. He continues to buy wild horses for slaughter from Indian reservations, which are not protected by the same laws. And since 2010, he has been seeking investors for a slaughterhouse of his own.

“Hell, some of the finest meat you will ever eat is a fat yearling colt,” he said. “What is wrong with taking all those BLM horses they got all fat and shiny and setting up a kill plant?”

Animal welfare advocates fear that horses bought by Davis are being sent to the killing floor. 

“The BLM says it protects wild horses,” said Laura Leigh, founder of the Nevada-based advocacy group Wild Horse Education, “but when they are selling to a guy like this you have to wonder.”

BLM officials say they carefully screen buyers and are adamant that no wild horses ever go to slaughter.

“We don’t feel compelled to sell to anybody we don’t feel good about,” agency spokesman Tom Gorey said. “We want the horses to be protected.”

Sally Spencer, who runs the wild horse sales program, said the agency has had no indication of problems with Davis and it would be unfair for the BLM to look more closely at him based on the volume of his purchases.

“It is no good to just stir up rumors,” she said. “We have never heard of him not being able to find homes. So people are innocent until proven guilty in the United States.”

Some BLM employees say privately that wild horse program officials may not want to look too closely at Davis. The agency has more wild horses than it knows what to do with, they say, and Davis has become a relief valve for a federal program plagued by conflict and cost over-runs. 

“They are under a lot of pressure in Washington to make numbers,” said a BLM corral manager who did not want his name used because he feared retribution from the agency’s national office. “Maybe that is what this is about. They probably don’t want to look too careful at this guy.”

******

Wild horses embody the mythic West: Painted Indian war ponies and the cavalry mounts that chased them, pony express runners and the tough partners of cowboys.

At the turn of the 20th Century, they numbered in the millions, but most were rounded up, slaughtered, and used for pet food or fertilizer, until by 1970, there were only 17,000 left.

In 1971, Congress stepped in to save the remaining herds, passing a law that declared wild horses “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and made it a crime for anyone to harass or kill wild horses on most federal land. The law tasked the departments of Interior and Agriculture with protecting the animals still roaming the range.

In a sense, the Bureau of Land Management—the part of the Interior Department assigned to oversee the wild horse program—succeeded in this a bit too well. Protected horses naturally began to reproduce and by 1983 there were an estimated 65,000 horses and burros on the range, competing for resources with cattle and native wildlife.

In the name of maintaining a sustainable balance, the BLM began removing horses from the wild. It now rounds up about 9,400 horses a year, which has kept the wild population at around 35,000.

The captured horses are put up for adoption. Almost anyone can have one for as little as $125 as long as they sign a contract promising not to sell it to slaughter.

Adoptions kept pace with round ups until investigations in the late 1980s and 1990s showed that many adopters, including several BLM employees, had turned a quick profit by selling the horses to slaughterhouses. To discourage such re-sales, the BLM began holding the title of sale for a year. Today the agency says it visits almost every adopter for a “compliance check” within six months to make sure horses are well cared for.

The restrictions protected horses, but discouraged adoptions, a trend compounded more recently by a bad economy and soaring hay prices.


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