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

Government to Investigate Horse-Adoption Program

(from USA Today:--------- 01/08/97 - 01:01 AM ET )

WASHINGTON - The Interior Department ordered an investigation Tuesday into whether government employees were profiting from a federal wild horse protection program, including selling some of the animals to slaughterhouses.

The Interior investigation, as well as a senator saying he might ask for congressional hearings, was prompted by an Associated Press report outlining abuses within the wild horse and burro protection program.

The 25-year-old program is administered by the Bureau of Land Management with the aim of finding people to adopt wild horses that roam the thousands of acres of federal rangeland across the West. More than 150,000 animals have been adopted since the program began in 1973.

"If it is found that a BLM employee or other horse adopter has been involved in criminal violations, the investigation will be promptly turned over to the appropriate U.S. attorney's office," said Bob Armstrong, assistant secretary for land and minerals.

Armstrong said in a statement that the BLM's law enforcement special investigators have been ordered to look into the reports immediately. Separately, the department's inspector general was close to completing two audits of the horse adoption program.

Meanwhile, Armstrong's deputy, Sylvia Baca, was named Tuesday as interim BLM director, replacing Michael Dombeck, who will head the U.S. Forest Service. Baca will return to her old job when a permanent director is nominated and confirmed by the Senate, the department said.

According to a review of computerized records and interviews with BLM officials, at least 57 adopted horses have been sold to U.S. and Canadian slaughterhouses since September, a fourth of them less than 5 years old. A comparison of computer records also showed that more than 200 current BLM employees have adopted 600 animals under the program and that some of the government employees, when contacted, could not account for the animals.

Armstrong said the adoption program, on which the government is spending $16 million this year, "assures the protection of healthy wild herds, while providing homes to those animals that cannot adequately survive in the wild."

But the AP investigation revealed that often people who have adopted horses - including BLM employees - could not account for them and that many horses have ended up in slaughterhouses for a profit.

"Clearly this was not intended," said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., who directed his staff to look into the program and said he may ask for a congressional hearing into the matter.

"The idea was to move adoptable horses off the desert and put them in the hands of private owners for their use," said Thomas, a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Interior Department.

"It certainly never was intended for the employees to take advantage of the program and siphon these animals off for a profit. And if that's the case, and if that's possible and apparently it has been, obviously that has to be changed. It's pretty shocking to discover that this kind of thing has been going on."

The BLM requires continued monitoring for a year after the horse is adopted. But after that, "once ownership is transferred, the BLM no longer has jurisdiction over the animal," said Armstrong.

"I have instructed the bureau to analyze current policy thoroughly and to provide timely recommendations to me on whether changes in adoption policy should be made," he added.

Thomas Pogacnik, who runs the adoption program for the BLM, said that it is "just flat-out wrong" to suggest that many of the horses adopted each year are sold for slaughter.

Pogacnik in a separate statement said that BLM regulations prohibit the sale of any adopted horses or their use in rodeos during the first year after the horse is adopted. But he also acknowledged that the bureau "does not track horses and burros" after the first year when title is assumed by the adopting party.

While nothing in the law prevents sending an adopted horse to slaughter, government officials offer conflicting opinions whether it is legal or ethical for BLM officials to adopt and sell horses.

BLM policy encourages agency employees to adopt and train wild horses for their own use. Pogacnik said many BLM employees "have adopted animals and have had title to them for years (and) are dedicated to their animals' care."

"Adoption is the best tool the BLM has for providing for the humane care of animals removed from the range," he added.

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