May 22, 2013
All the Missing Horses
Posted on Sep 29, 2012
By Dave Philipps, ProPublica
Today, only one in three captured horses finds a home. The rest go into a warren of tax payer-funded corrals, feed lots and pastures collectively known as “the holding system.” Since horses often live 20 years after being captured, the holding population has grown steadily for decades from 1,600 in 1989 to more than 47,000. There are now more wild horses living in captivity than in the wild.
For decades, government auditors and wild horse welfare advocates have warned that the policy of capturing and storing horses is unsustainable and have pushed for the BLM to use fertility controls, introduce predators or expand wild horse territories, but the agency has made little progress toward these goals. In the first half of this year, for example, it treated fewer than half as many wild horses with a birth control drug than was planned.
“I think they are caught in an old way of doing things,” said John Turner, an endocrinologist at University of Toledo who specializes in wild horse fertility control. “Once they round up the horses, I don’t think they like to treat and release. They would rather remove them.”
Cost pressures prompted Congress to pass a last-minute rider to a 2004 law directing the BLM to sell thousands of old or unadoptable wild horses for $10 a head without restrictions—even for slaughter—but the agency has not done so, fearing public outrage.
Instead, since then, the BLM has been selling horses, but requiring buyers to sign contracts saying they will “not knowingly sell or transfer ownership of any listed wild horse and or burro to any person or organization with an intention to resell, trade, or give away the animal for processing into commercial products.” Violating the agreement is a felony, but there are no compliance checks similar to those done when horses are adopted.
Even when priced at less than a few bales of hay, these horses had little appeal: Sales dropped from 1,468 in 2005 to 351 in 2008.
To explore other options for reducing the number of horses in holding, top BLM officials gathered for weekly closed-door meetings from July to October 2008. According to meeting minutes obtained by the Conquistador Equine Rescue & Advocacy Program, they considered selling thousands of animals for slaughter and even large-scale euthanasia, but concluded such actions would enrage animal-welfare activists to the point they might “threaten the safety of our facilities and our employees.”
No clear plan emerged.
As the wild horse program’s situation grew increasingly dire, a new option came knocking: Tom Davis.
Davis, 64, a plain-spoken man with a sun-beaten brow, makes his living hauling livestock, but says reselling wild horses now accounts for a substantial part of his income.
By his own account, he has worked around horses all his life—on racetracks, on ranches, and even rounding up wild horses for slaughter before the 1971 law put a stop to the practice.
For most of that time, he has lived in the tiny town of La Jara, in Colorado’s mountain-ringed San Luis Valley, just down the road from Ken Salazar, the former U.S. Senator who now heads the Department of the Interior.
“When my dad was alive we farmed their land,” Davis said of the Salazar family. “I like them. I do business with them. I do quite a bit of trucking for Ken.”
(Salazar did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.)
On a warm morning in May, Davis gave a rambling two-hour interview on the 13-acre spread of corrals and truck lots where he lives.
Leaning against the fence of a muddy corral where a half dozen horses nibbled hay, wearing dusty overalls, Davis gave a simple reason for becoming the BLM’s main buyer.
“I love wild horses to death,” he said. “It’s like an addiction. For some it’s drugs, for me it’s horses.”
According to BLM records, Davis first contacted the program in January 2008. Documents obtained from the agency show he filled out the application to become a buyer over the phone, aided by Spencer, the BLM’s sales director, who wrote in his answers to questions on the form. (A BLM spokesman said in an email that agency employees often did this in the program’s early days, but no longer do.)
Under a question concerning Davis’ intended use of the animals, Spencer wrote “use for movies.” He later told other BLM employees he sold the horses to Mexican movie companies to use on film shoots.
Under a question about what type of horses Davis preferred, the application noted he would take males or females, so long as they were big.
At the bottom of the application, Spencer wrote that she and Davis had “Discussed goal of providing a good home and making sure none of the horses end up at slaughter plants.” A few weeks later, the BLM sent Davis 36 wild horses from its Cañon City, Colo., holding corral.
That was the only load the BLM sent Davis in 2008, records show. But in 2009—a few months after the meetings about the holding crisis and two weeks after Salazar became head of the Interior Department—the agency started sending him truckload after truckload, from all over the West. Soon he was by far their biggest customer.
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