Wild horses to the slaughter?

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT)
    High Country News seeks an energetic, eloquent and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...