May 22, 2013
All the Missing Horses
Posted on Sep 29, 2012
By Dave Philipps, ProPublica
Davis bought 560 horses in 2009, another 332 animals in 2010, 599 more in 2011, and 239 in the first four months of 2012, agency records show. While most BLM buyers purchase one or two horses at a time, Davis averages 35 per purchase and has bought up to 240 at a time.
The animals came from the mountains of California and Wyoming, the mesas of Colorado and Utah, and the deserts of Nevada and Oregon. Many had lived for decades in the wild: Mature band stallions and resilient mares of every color descended from the first American horses.
Davis has paid the BLM a total of $17,630 for the animals, far less than BLM has expended to provide them – the agency estimates it costs $1,000 to roundup a wild horse and records show it has paid as much as $5,000 per truckload to ship them to Davis. Similar horses that are not acquired from the BLM and can legally be sold for slaughter fetch $300,000 to $600,000 on the open market, according to sales prices from regional livestock auctions.
Some BLM corral managers said in interviews they felt uneasy shipping so many horses to a single buyer, and one they knew so little about, but said such decisions weren’t up to them.
Davis said BLM employees occasionally asked where his horses ended up, but said he tells them it’s “none of your damn business.”
“They never question me too hard. It makes ‘em look good if they’re movin’ these horses, see?” he said. “Every horse I take from them saves them a lot of money. I’m doing them a favor. I’m doing the American people a favor.”
So what happened to the wild horses Davis purchased from the BLM?
The agency can’t say for sure. It does not hold onto the titles of wild horses acquired through its sale program as it does with horses that are adopted. Officials also have no process for following up to make sure buyers use animals as they claim they will in applications.
In the interview at the ranch, Davis said he had found most of the mustangs “good homes” on properties mostly in the southeastern states. Asked if he would provide records of these sales, he responded, “Ain’t no way in hell.”
Other people who find homes for rescue horses in the region say they rely heavily on advertising and web sites to connect with buyers. Davis does not appear to do so.
“I’ve never heard of him,” said David Hesse, who runs Mustang and Wild Horse Rescue of Georgia. “If he said he is finding homes for that many old, untamed mustangs, I’m skeptical. The market is deader than dead. I have trouble finding homes for even the ones that are saddle-broken. Wild ones? No way.”
On some sales applications, Davis has said he sells horses to graze on land used for oil and gas drilling in Texas, but oil industry experts contacted for this story said they had never heard of such a practice.
According to brand inspection documents required by Colorado when livestock is sold or shipped more than 75 miles, Davis and his wife say they have sent 765 animals with BLM wild horse brands to a sparsely populated stretch of arid brush country along the Mexico border in Kinney County, Texas. (The records do not give specific addresses where animals were sent, but identify small towns, such as Spofford, as their destination.)
It’s impossible to confirm that the horses actually arrived there or to know where they might have gone next, however, because Texas is one of the few Western states that do not require brand inspections when horses are moved or sold.
Just south of Kinney County is Eagle Pass, a border town that isthe only crossing for horses going to slaughter in Mexico for hundreds of miles.
There have been no horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. since 2007, when Congress barred funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture horse meat inspectors. Since then horse slaughter has been outsourced. A 2011 report by the General Accountability Office found the export of horses for slaughter to Mexico shot up 660 percent after the ban.
In Eagle Pass, as at other crossings, slaughter horses are checked by USDA veterinarians. A USDA spokeswoman refused to make veterinarians available for interviews, but confirmed that vets sometimes see wild horses bearing the BLM brand in slaughter export pens.
Brand documents leave almost 1,000 of Davis’s wild horses unaccounted for. That means they should still be within 75 miles of his residence—if he has complied with state law.
Asked if this was the case, Davis first said the horses were still on 160 acres of land he leases from the state of Colorado. Then he said some had been shipped out of state without brand inspections, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“Since when is anything in this country done legal?” Davis said in a phone interview.
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