On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management began its helicopter-assisted roundup of 3,500 wild horses and burros from public lands. Horses gathered from the range are corralled temporarily around the West and then shipped to pastures in the Midwest, where they’re either adopted or spend the rest of their lives chomping on grass at the taxpayer’s expense.
The costs of the BLM’s wild horse and burro program have ballooned to $75.8 million, up from around $16 million in 1989. In that same timeframe, the number of wild horses in long-term holding pastures has increased from just 1,600 to over 45,000 this summer, stretching the agency to near capacity. At the same time, adoption rates of wild horses have dropped sharply since the program started in 1995.
What that means is there are now more wild horses in captivity than on the open range, and the BLM is running out of places to put them.
The agency could, of course, kill the horses. As of 2004, when Congress passed the Burns amendment to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the BLM is allowed to sell old or unadoptable horses for $10 a head to anyone—including to slaughterhouses or to kill buyers. But two years after that amendment, Congress withdrew funding for USDA inspections of horses destined for food, effectively ending domestic horse slaughtering. Funding was reinstated last November after a Government Accountability Office report found the domestic slaughter ban had unintentionally harmed horses. Horses were now traveling further to be slaughtered, to places like Canada and Mexico where they are not protected by the USDA’s humane slaughter rules.
But the BLM still won’t sell horses to slaughterhouses or kill buyers because of uncertainty about what Congress wants and the PR disaster it would create, according to BLM spokesman Tom Gorey (domestic horse slaughterhouses have also had a tough time getting USDA approval, despite being legal again). Instead, the agency requires all buyers to sign an agreement saying they will not knowingly sell a horse to someone who might have it slaughtered. Violating that agreement is a felony.
But a damning investigation published September 28 by journalist Dave Philipps (stay tuned for his upcoming HCN story on the BLM’s wild horse and burro program) and ProPublica suggests the agency has already been selling horses to a buyer who may be shipping them to slaughterhouses in Mexico.
According to the story, since 2009 the BLM has sold over 1,700 horses to Tom Davis, a known horse slaughter advocate who told Philipps that “some of the finest meat you will ever eat is a fat yearling colt.”
Although Philipps didn’t have clear documentation proving Davis was funneling the horses into a slaughterhouse, the evidence he did amass certainly suggests as much. Davis didn’t care what types of horses he bought, as long as they were big. He buys an average of 35 horses at a time, while most buyers only purchase one or two, and claims to find them “good homes” in the Southeast. However, a wild horse rescuer in Georgia that Philipps spoke with expressed skepticism that Davis was able to find homes for so many wild horses, saying the market is “deader than dead.”
Davis also admitted to illegally shipping horses across state lines, including down to the Texas-Mexico border, where veterinarians say they sometimes see horses with BLM brands headed for slaughterhouses in Mexico. But Philipps’ paper trail ended when he asked to see documentation of BLM horses bound for slaughterhouses. The USDA stalled his Freedom of Information Act request for records of veterinarians conducting border inspections of the BLM horses, arguing it would cost tens of thousands of dollars and months to comply with, Phillips said. So he and ProPublica decided to publish the story anyway and let readers connect the dots.
Not surprisingly, the BLM maintains that none of its horses are ending up in slaughterhouses. “No evidence was provided by the article that horses sold to Tom Davis ended up in slaughterhouses,” Gorey said in an official statement. “We take allegations of this type seriously and will look into any allegations that have a degree of credibility.”
Since Philipps’ report came out last week, horse advocates have called for the BLM to halt all wild horse roundups. "The safest place for a wild horse is in the wild," said Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Colorado Springs-based Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group, in response to the investigation. "The fate of horses, once they are captured, is murky based on some of the newest revelations of what's going on."
But the BLM can’t just stop rounding up wild horses without facing lawsuits from other users of public lands, who contend the horses erode soil, increase sedimentation in streams and generally destroy the range, according to Gorey.
So what should the agency do?
Some wild horse advocates say the BLM should give more wild horses birth control and release them, like they’re doing with 900 of the 3,500 horses to be rounded up this fall. But the agency says that’s difficult to do with large herds, and mares need to be re-vaccinated every year. “We only gather the herds every four years, so that’s a problem,” Gorey told The New York Times in 2009.
Killing old and unadoptable horses could be a viable, and legal, solution to the problem, but it seems unlikely the BLM will ever do it. “It’s off the table as far as an option,” Gorey said, “this administration has made it clear…it was not going to be considered.”
That leaves the BLM stuck with more horses than it can handle, fewer places to put them and an increasing population on the range.
“The BLM is in an impossible situation,” Philipps said in an interview, “I don’t know if they’re going to find a way out of it.”
Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.
Photos courtesy BLM Idaho and BLM Nevada. Chart data courtesy BLM Spokesman Tom Gorey.