I.G.H.A. / HorseAid's Bureau of Land Management News

The Wild Horse Story No One Wants to Face

By Merritt Clifton (from ANIMAL PEOPLE Magazine)

DENVER -- Wild horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management and sold to slaughter hit the headlines on January 4 -- again. This time Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, chased the perennial allegations of BLM malfeasance by tracing paper trails, something animal advocates have not done on any comparable scale. "Using freeze-brand numbers and computer records," Mendoza reported, "the AP traced more than 57 former BLM horses sold to slaughterhouses since September. Eighty percent were less than 10 years old and 25% were less than five years old." Further, Mendoza alleged, "The AP matched computer records of horse adoptions with a computerized list of federal employees and found that more than 200 current BLM employees have adopted more than 600 wild horses and burros." Mendoza got some eye-popping quotes, too. "Asked about the AP's findings," she wrote, "Tom Pogacnik, director of the BLM's $16-million-a-year Wild Horse and Burro Program, conceded that about 90% of the horses rounded up go to slaughter."

In addition, Mendoza found, "Using the BLM's computerized records maintained in Denver and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the AP found that 32,774 of all adopted horses and burros--20%--remain untitled. Legally, they are still federal property." The Mendoza expose unraveled somewhat under scrutiny. The 57 wild horses sold to slaughter in approximately four months was not a greater number than go to slaughter from many individual riding stables, racetracks, and ranches. That 90% of the BLM horses eventually go to slaughter, as Pogacnik purportedly indicated, would just reflect the fate of most horses from any source who go to auction. "While it is common for old or lame horses to go to slaughter," Mendoza acknowledged, "nearly all former BLM horses sent to slaughter are young and healthy."

Yet dozens of horse rescue groups from coast to coast stay busy buying and adopting out other young, healthy horses they find at slaughter auctions. The fact is, horse overpopulation seems to be as much a reality as pet overpopulation, and although many people are willing to adopt a horse for a while, most quickly find themselves unable to keep up with the ongoing costs and demand on time. Wild horses, precisely because they are wild, require particular effort to turn into good riding steeds. Since federal budget cuts killed most of the prison-based projects that formerly either "gentled" or "broke" wild horses to saddle, the horses available for adoption have been more problematic, less suitable for the average rider. They can't compete with abundant ready-to-ride horses from domestic oversupply, even at the BLM adoption price of $125, 11% of the average cost to the government of rounding up, vaccinating, freezebranding, and adopting out a wild horse.

Adopters "can get lame or old horses for as little as $25, or even for free," Mendoza wrote, referring to the fee-waiver program the BLM uses to rid itself of horses nobody wants. "After holding the horses for a year, the adopters are free to sell them for slaughter, typically receiving $700 per animal. The government spends $1,100. The adopter can make $575 or more."

No gift horses

Pogacnik pointed out in response to Mendoza that, "The cost of caring for an animal for a year runs between $500 and $1,000 or higher, depending on the part of the country, making it economically impractical for people to immediately profit after title is issued. Despite these safeguards, some wild horses that are titled and no longer under federal protection wind up in slaughterhouses," Pogacnik acknowledged. "However, none of the animals cited in the article were federally protected. These animals were privately owned."

Tanna Chattin, New Mexico state BLM office external affairs chief, added a few more personal words. "I had to compete in the adoption lottery like all other citizens," she wrote of acquiring her mare Duchess last September. "On the day of the lottery I paid the government $125. My horse trailer, while it is great for my other horses, does not meet the BLM standards for a wild horse. I paid $100 to a professional hauler to get my little mare to Santa Fe. I also spend $200 at the adoption site for professional horse handlers to begin the gentling. Prior to adoption, I needed a veterinary certificate, stipulating that I had an adequate place for her, and afterward an inspector visited the stable unannounced. Duchess costs me $200 a month to board. When I get title, I will have an investment in her, not counting veterinary care, of $2,285. Yet Mendoza claims I can receive $700 for her at the slaughterhouse as a greedy BLM employee and make a profit."

The record of horse adoptions by BLM employees that Mendoza found divides out to three horses per adopter. Some BLM staff, unlike Chattin and the majority, may take large numbers--but that may not mean what it seems.

Mendoza cited two BLM employees who adopted multiple horses, some of whom were later sold for slaughter. Michael Woods, of Baker City, Oregon, adopted four horses, beginning in 1992, and sold them all. A mare whom Woods said had hurt her leg went to slaughter in 1996.

The other example Mendoza cited was Victor McDarment, who manages the BLM corrals at Rock Springs, Wyoming, and leads roundups and adoption events throughout the region. "According to BLM data base records," Mendoza stipulated, "McDarment has adopted 16 horses. His estranged wife adopted nine. His children adopted at least six. His co-workers in the corrals and their families adopted 54 more."

Some of McDarment's horses, Mendoza found, "ended up with Dennis Gifford, a Lovell, Wyoming rancher and rodeo contractor who was barred from BLM horse adoptions because he was rounding up wild mustangs illegally and adding them to his private herds. According to court records, he has also been convicted of selling livestock without state brand inspections." Gifford told Mendoza, "he's sure some of McDarment's horses were slaughtered."

ANIMAL PEOPLE happened to call Robin Duxbury of Project Equus on other business two years ago just as she came in the door from watching a McDarment roundup, and took extensive notes on her appalled observations of alleged brutality. She had forgotten the conversation when ANIMAL PEOPLE called her again in researching this article, and ANIMAL PEOPLE did not remind her, but when we asked if she knew McDarment, she described all the same incidents in almost the same terms.

Acknowledging that McDarment may be a rough customer, Chattin nonetheless told ANIMAL PEOPLE that in her view, Mendoza treated him unfairly.

"For over a year," Chattin said, "I encouraged Mendoza to really look at the wild horse program. We told her about some of the problems up front, trying to find resolutions rather than blame. I personally believe Victor McDarment took a cultural hit. Many of us know Victor, and as an American Indian like myself, he has a large extended family who have been involved with horses probably over a lifetime. Mendoza didn't make clear that Victor's BLM involvement with horses was over a 20-year period. Within that period, he adopted 25 horses, of whom he still has 16. After receiving title, he sold one as a saddle horse, gave one to a brother-in-law, traded four for pasture land, and three died. His girlfriend adopted horses before he knew her. His adult children may have adopted horses on their own. They do not live in Wyoming.

"I'm sure Mendoza could write a scathing article about me next year," Chattin added, "because of my advocacy in promoting horse adoptions among my many, many relatives and tribal members."

A wild horse story

In theory, BLM horse adopters might get rich quick selling horses for meat if they could get lots of horses by fee-waiver, evade titling, and/or have access to "free" pasture, either on their own land or public land through a sweetheart deal like the one the Julia Butler Hansen refuge (see page one) gives to a nearby cattle farmer. But the failure of the BLM to title 20% of the wild horses it places may chiefly reflect personnel loss through budget cuts. The 32,774 untitled adoptions that Mendoza discovered involved "more than 18,000 different people," she wrote, indicating that the overwhelming majority do not take horses in commercial volume. A paperwork backlog would be the logical interpretation of a memo of March 27, 1995, in which according to Mendoza, BLM law enforcement agent John Brenna said BLM official Lili Thomas made "a tacit admission of back-dating documents."

Brenna was among a group of BLM law enforcement agents who stood silent at a September 19, 1995 press conference in Albuquerque, called by representatives of eight organizations who banded together to make a joint statement as the American Wild Horse and Burro Alliance.

"Evidence will be provided" about "funneling horses through an internal pipeline for disposal at slaughtering plants, creating large monetary profits for select individuals," the Alliance claimed in summoning media. The whole BLM wild horse program, they claimed, was based on "manipulation of field data for the purpose of drastically reducing wild horse and burro populations."

The BLM law enforcement agents appeared as mute props, purportedly gagged by a grand jury in Del Rio, Texas, that apparently never actually heard witnesses. Reporters were told that the agents had been transferred hither and yon in the interim due to BLM retaliation for exposing fraud. Copies were distributed of a letter sent to American Wild Horse and Burro Alliance spokesperson Karen Sussman by recently retired BLM official Reed Smith, which seemed to support allegations of a cover-up.

For a few days the Wild Horse and Burro Alliance enjoyed the spotlight. But then that story fell apart much as Mendoza's did. As ANIMAL PEOPLE reported in November 1995 and follow-ups, the grand jury probe arose from a December 1994 incident in which Brent Heberlein, manager of the Beltex horse slaughtering plant at Fort Worth, Texas, called the BLM to report the receipt of eight suspect wild horses--not exactly an attempt to cover up a supposed major source of animals.

The law enforcement agents who attended the Albuquerque press conference, like hundreds of other Interior Department staff at the same time, were being transferred all over as part of the Clinton administration's scheme for downsizing federal bureaucracy. With steep budget and staff cuts mandated, staff were being moved to fill vacancies, wherever they were, rather than lay people off. ANIMAL PEOPLE located and interviewed most of the agents, but none could supply any specifics about alleged abuses within the BLM wild horse program that hadn't already been published by American Wild Horse Coalition member groups' newsletters in 1987-1990, after first surfacing in mass media.

Reed Smith had worked in the oil and gas leasing program, not with wild horses. His four-page letter, which mentioned wild horses only in the first paragraph, looked like a rewrite of an alleged expose of the oil and gas program that he'd originally issued in October 1994. A Reed Smith who seemed to fit his description had blown a lot of whistles that didn't sound true, as a failed writer living on a government disability pension, as a book store owner who claimed without substantiation that his apparent prosecution for allegedly selling pornography had something to do with the landmark 1961 Tropic of Cancer case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, as a tax evader and advocate of tax revolt, and as author/publisher of tabloid denials that the Nazis gassed Jews at Auschwitz. Smith eventually denied being that person. BLM sources, however, not only agreed that Smith probably was that person, but also offered that he'd been in trouble for purportedly poaching moose in Alaska on government time.

The Department of Justice on July 5, 1996 dropped the Del Rio probe, which centered on 36 horses adopted in 1993 by Texas rancher James Donald Galloway, who was a former BLM staffer, and eight of his friends. In July 1993, 19 of the horses were seized from a ranch in Terrell County, Texas, by magisterial order, after an informant reported overhearing Galloway and an associate discussing a scheme to sell them for slaughter after they gained title to the horses by keeping them for the requisite year. Galloway surrendered another eight horses in March 1994. One horse died, and the remainder were the group Heberlein intercepted at Beltex. Galloway had adopted as many as 9,000 of the 165,000 wild horses rounded up by the BLM since 1971, but the Justice Department found that the case against him was based on hearsay.

Horsefeathers & such

ANIMAL PEOPLE was not surprised when by the third paragraph of Mendoza's January 28 follow-up, she--like the American Wild Horse and Burro Alliance--was reduced to quoting Reed Smith.

Doug McInnis of The New York Times also published an expose of the BLM wild horse program on January 28, after amplifying the 1995 Reed Smith allegations in two 1996 articles. But according to McInnis' sources, the BLM problem is not so much a matter of falsification as it is of deliberately not paying attention. "Faced with the need to remove 10,000 horses a year from public lands," McInnis quoted what he termed an internal 1996 Justice Department memorandum, "BLM has an unstated policy of not looking too closely at proposed adoptions." BLM staff "freely admit that everyone 'knows' as a general proposition that most of the horses adopted go out to slaughter eventually," the memo added, but "the agency tries to avoid figuring out that this will happen in any given adoption."

But Bill Sharp, former BLM manager of adoptions in the Southwest sector, perhaps most accurately fingered the crux. "They've always had too many horses," he told McInnis. "We were under pressure all the time to move more horses. That's the name of the game. If you look at the history of the program, it's been a wreck ever since it started."

The BLM took over the business of removing wild horses from public land from grazing leaseholders as result of a long campaign by the late Velma Johnson, a Nevada secretary, who began fighting mustang roundups more than 40 years ago. Her struggle inspired The Misfits (1961), the last film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The 1971 Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act was dubbed the "Wild Horse Annie Act" in Johnson's honor.

But if anything ever really changed wild horse management, it isn't apparent. Thirty million cattle and sheep graze western range, compared with an officially estimated 32,000 wild horses--about as many as lived in Nevada alone in 1990. The Nevada herd is now down to 23,000, and is to be thinned to 19,000 by the end of this year. Yet as in Johnson's day, ranchers begrudge every blade of grass and drink of water the horses take from land leased for grazing at about $2.00 per "animal unit month," 25% or less of estimated fair market value.

The situation is the same in Owyhee County, Idaho. "The government is supposed to manage the forage and recreation to protect wild horses," retired Navy officer turned private wild horse tamer Earl Maggard recently told McInnis. "But when ranchers start screaming and hollering that there's too many horses out there, the BLM holds a roundup. I've opposed every reduction they've ever made."

The BLM recently proposed to cut the grazing pressure in the Owyhee mountains by a third, after finding 80% of the federal grasslands to be in "fair to poor" condition. The cut won't take effect until 1998, at earliest. Meanwhile, the Owyhee wild horse herd of about 200 takes the heat.

"Of the nine states that wild horses and burros roam," Robin Duxbury of Denver-based Project Equus told ANIMAL PEOPLE, "Colorado's horses probably fare better than most. The Colorado wild horse population is relatively small. BLM management of these horses is at a minimum, but is certainly not without controversy. The Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition and Friends of the Mustangs do a pretty good job of staying in the faces of the BLM when roundups take place. The Coalition, in particular, challenges every roundup, and always has volunteers on site who do counts which ensure that none are rerouted to the killers.

"Despite this effort, it's far from foolproof," Duxbury explained. "Wild horses from Colorado do wind up on European dinner plates," the major destination of North American horsemeat. "I attend most of the horse auctions on the eastern slope during the spring and summer months, and I see the BLM freeze brand on at least one horse per auction. These poor horses were impulse buys for people who are not knowledgeable about horses in general, and pretty much clueless about wild horses. They get their wake-up call a few weeks after the adoption. They realize, 'My God, we have a wild animal!' Some are smart enough to admit their mistake and return their horses to the BLM. This is one way in which some horses are routed to the killers. The BLM doesn't want the returns, because they have few resources to provide for them and cannot return them to the wild." A BLM sanctuary in Oklahoma already has 1,100 geldings on it, whose prospects of re-adoption are slim and whose budget is jeopardized annually by cuts. "Some returns are sent to Canon City for training in Colorado's Wild Horse Inmate Program," Duxbury added. "Other adopters simply wait a year to receive full ownership and then hit the first auction."

The wildness of wild horses is not to be underestimated. "Without fail," Duxbury said, "every time I've seen a wild horse prodded down the chute into the auction arena, the horse has gone berserk. They throw themselves against the steel bars of the arena, try to jump the fence, fall down, run head-on into walls, and injure themselves. No one is going to bid on a horse like that, except the killers. "It's not enough to say the BLM adoption program has outlived its usefulness," Duxbury emphasized. "It never has served the best interests of wild horses, and never will. It was doomed to fail from the beginning."

The Wild Horse Annie Act was founded on the erroneous premise that wild horses can be successfully domesticated and placed in caring stables for recreational riding, at sufficiently low cost to compete with other sources of riding horses, in adequate volume to satisfy ranchers at a time when the horses had no natural predators over most of their range. While 25 years of attempted adoptions have demonstrated that slaughter is the only practicable high-volume destination for the horses, horse predators are back. Grizzly bears have not repopulated their former range, but pumas have, and wolves are beginning to. "Predators work," Duxbury observes. "A good example is in the Montgomery Pass, on the California/Nevada border. According to Linda Coates-Markle of the BLM office in Billings, Montana, the Montgomery Pass horses are controlled solely by pumas."

Unpopular solutions

However, Duxbury doubts that nature alone could solve the wild horse dilemma, even if ranchers and bioxenophobic conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, and Natural Resources Defense Council could be persuaded to drop mass roundups--which the conservationists as well as the ranchers want to increase. Contending that equines are an "introduced species," though they evolved in North America, conservationists, not ranchers, in recent years convinced the Forest Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extirpate wild horses and burros from their holdings. The BLM tolerated wild burros in the Mojave desert, for instance; only since the land was deeded to the Park Service at the creation of the Mojave National Preserve has Wild Burro Rescue had to remove two dozen burros a year so that the burro herd won't be shot.

"In July of 1994," Duxbury recounts, "the starving wild horses at the White Sands Missile Range were big news, and the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros," the same group that orchestrated the American Wild Horse and Burro Alliance, "was at the forefront of the media. I recall vividly the conversation I had with that group's spokesperson, Karen Sussman. Before calling Sussman, I consulted with Jaime Jackson. I hold his opinions about wild horses in high regard because he spent several years living with and studying these animals in the wild, getting dirty, tolerating extreme weather, going hungry and thirsty at times, and risking altercations with nervous stallions and aggressive mares. Jaime's solution," letting nature handle it, "was so simple that I couldn't wait to share it. How naive of me! What it boiled down to was, Sussman wanted to save the horses. She prevailed, and had some good fundraising fodder. But now I have heard that an adoption nightmare has been the result," as the ISPMB apparently promised to place more horses than it actually could.

"Last July," Duxbury explained, "Jaime was contacted by a Susan Wagoner, who sought his help in finding suitable homes for the wild horses who are still being removed from White Sands. She wanted to give them 'wild and free-roaming' homes, not in the wild but in a domestic equivalent. Appreciating paradox, Jamie suggested placing about 50 horses in a thousand-acre tract of the most rugged and probably cheapest land possible, introducing a few pumas if they weren't already there, and keeping out veterinarians, farriers, and anyone else not dedicated to natural values. Wagoner never called back. Was Jaime right? Maybe, maybe not. But it seems to me that if the activists had left well enough alone, they wouldn't be scrambling around for adopters today."

Enzo Giobbe of the International Generic Horse Association/HorseAid, on the other hand, thinks his organization could solve the adoption bottleneck if allowed to bid on managing the whole BLM wild horse program as a private nonprofit contractor.

"We would undertake and underwrite a humane system to keep the mustang herd population at a manageable level, by gelding yearling stallions in the field through a team of volunteer licensed veterinarians using a traveling field hospital," Giobbe said. "We understand that management in this manner would leave little to natural selection, but it would be far better than the current BLM system. We have already offered to take all the mustangs now in BLM custody and all mustangs taken off the range in the future, and to place them in adoptive homes. Our only stipulations would be that the horses would have to be donated to us at no cost, that we would hold full title to the animals, and that after the animals entered the HorseAid program, the BLM would not interfere with our placements. However, the BLM would be allowed to inspect the horses at will. Since we do not allow the sale of any HorseAid horse, this would ensure their ongoing safety. All horses entered into the HorseAid program," Giobbe stated, "become and remain property of HorseAid throughout their lives. This is why we charge no fee to donators of horses, and no fee to adopters. We monitor all of our horses for life, and the horses in our program are branded with our registered 'No Kill' brand as an added safeguard."

It's big talk, but Giobbe and IGHA/HorseAid associates appear to have placed more horses successfully than any other horse rescue organization.

"I'm not sure what the answers are," Duxbury concluded, "but it's pretty obvious that as long as we have these wise-use wiseguys, and the Nature Conservancy et al, the wild horse situation is going to get worse before it gets better. Jay Kirkpatrick may be on the right track in developing fertility inhibitors. One thing is certain: animal rights activists can no longer use the weak and worn-out argument of, 'Just leave them alone.' There is going to have to be some interference," in recognition of political reality and the prospect that wild horses will just be shot on sight without other intervention to placate their foes, "but I would like it to be as minimal as possible."

(ANIMAL PEOPLE is a nonprofit monthly newspaper providing independent professional coverage of all the news about animal protection, from animal rescue to zoological conservation. We have no alignment or affiliation with any particular ideology, other than "be kind to animals," nor are we in any way associated with any advocacy group. If you give to help animals, you'll especially want our annual report on how each leading group spends donations ($3.00). Subscriptions, U.S. or foreign, are $22/year, $35/2 years, or $50/three years, to POB 960, Clinton, WA 98236-0960. We'll send a free sample issue to anyone who provides a postal address.

Reprinted by permission of ANIMAL PEOPLE magazine.

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