Thousands of wild horses captured on Western ranges by the U.S. government and placed in the care of ranchers are winding up in the slaughterhouse, animal protection groups charge.
Protected by the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, these horses are part of the herds rounded up each year by U.S. Bureau of Land Management wranglers in their effort to reduce the number of horses on the ranges in 10 Western states. The act protects the animals on public lands and forbids their commercial exploitation.
The bureau tries to find suitable homes for the animals through its widely advertised “adopt-a-horse” program but has succeeded in placing only about a third of the 38,000 horses captured during the last three years, records show. The unadoptable mustangs wound up in government holding pens.
‘Rock and a Hard Place’
“We’re between a rock and a hard place on this one,” said BLM Director Robert Burford, a Colorado cattleman before joining the Reagan Administration. He said the number of horses on the ranges has doubled since the law was passed. “We can’t continue spending $17.8 million a year feeding horses in corrals,” he said.
To move more horses out of federal custody, Burford agreed in 1984 to waive the $125-a-head adoption fee for ranchers who were willing to take large numbers of the animals. Since then, records show that 17,200 wild horses have been adopted without fee. Eight thousand have been turned over to ranchers and are awaiting transfer of title.
Burford said the fee-waiver program has helped economically hard-hit cattle ranchers who cannot afford to restock their pastures by giving them horses to “utilize their (privately owned) empty ranges.” But animal rights groups call the large-scale adoptions “bogus schemes” and are fighting them in court.
To satisfy the four-horse limit the law sets on all adoptions, the bureau allows a rancher to gather powers of attorney from others who agree to let their names be used in the adoption process. With 25 powers of attorney, the rancher can take 100 Bureau of Land Management horses.
“Obviously this is a way to get around the intent of the law,” Dick Stark, a bureau wild horse expert, said. The average fee-waiver adoption involves 200 to 300 head; the largest adoption thus far approved by the bureau was for 2,000 animals.
Ranchers keep the animals a year, then are granted title. Bureau officials are cautious about talking about what happens to the mustangs once title is conveyed. The law does not allow adoption for profit, according to Vern Schulze, a fee-waiver program manager for the bureau. However, he said the bureau’s responsibility over the horses ends when the rancher gets title. “What happens . . . (after that) is none of our concern,” Schulze said.
Fee-waiver horses are the unadoptable thousands. Older, wilder and, for the most part, the least attractive, these animals are the offspring of domestic horse herds that were turned lose on the ranges half a century or more ago.
“The only useful purpose for these horses is slaughter,” said one South Dakota rancher who has adopted hundreds of wild horses. A Montana stock buyer said some of the wildest broncos go to rodeos, but most of the mustangs are sold to meatpackers who pay from $200 to $250 a head. Most of the meat is exported to Europe for human consumption, he said.
Large-Scale Adoptions Denounced
The Animal Protection Institute of Sacramento and the New York-based Fund for Animals denounce the large-scale adoptions and filed suit last year in federal court in Reno in an attempt to prevent turning the horses over the ranchers.
“We want to see the horses protected, as the law requires,” said Bob Hillman of the Animal Protection Institute. “They should be left on the range . . . (as) part of the American heritage for all time.” Hillman argued that it is the domestic livestock that is overgrazing the public lands and urged that the number of cattle and sheep be reduced to make room for the horses.
The controversy is not without irony, according to Jimmie Lou Eddleman, a Montana rancher’s wife. She said that before the 1971 act was passed, the mustangs were rounded up by enterprising cowboys who sold them to meat processors. “Now,” she said, “the horses go the same route, only it takes longer . . . and it costs (the taxpayers) more.”
Since 1984, the Reagan Administration has spent $71.8 million trying to reduce the herds to manageable size, according to top bureau officials. They estimate that there are 43,000 mustangs competing with 3.2 million head of domestic livestock on public ranges leased by ranchers. That figure is down from an estimated 50,000 wild horses that roamed the ranges in the 1979-1980 period. Burford wants to reduce the mustang total to 31,000--a level he feels will not further damage the ranges.
Burros, which are also protected under the act, are far fewer in number and much less of a problem. Those rounded up by the bureau are generally quickly adopted by individuals who find the long-eared creatures more attractive and easier to keep than the mustangs.
In its search for other ways to thin out the wild horse herds, the agency has started giving vasectomies to wild stallions and surgically implanting hormones in mares in a $1.2-million experiment to see if the wild horse reproductive rate can be reduced significantly.
Two years into the five-year experiment, scientists report that the results are not encouraging and that there have been problems. This fall, 48 of the horses in the Nevada experiment died of thirst after roundup crews left them stranded in a waterless area.
The Bureau of Land Management is also considering the establishment of wild horse sanctuaries on private lands purchased by nonprofit groups. At least two organizations have proposed raising money privately to buy land, saying it would cost the bureau far less to care for the horses in such sanctuaries. The idea is under study.
In the meantime, the bureau continues to round up as many horses as its budget allows. Last year, federal wranglers corralled 11,600 horses. Most were rounded up in Nevada, Oregon and California. The older, harder-to-adopt horses were shipped to the huge federal holding pens in Bloomfield, Neb., where most of the fee-waiver adoptions take place.
The fee-waiver controversy escalated when U.S. District Judge Howard D. McKibben partially supported the horse protectors’ position in a ruling handed down in Reno on July 8. McKibben told the bureau that it could not issue titles to wild horses if agency officials knew the adopter intended to sell the animals commercially. The judge did not, however, order the bureau to inquire about the adopter’s intent in advance.
That decision has been appealed by the bureau. In the meantime, agency officials continue the fee-waiver program, saying the ruling applies only if they know in advance that the horses are going to sale. As long as staff members remain ignorant of a rancher’s intent, the agency must pass title to the adopter after a year, bureau lawyers have said.
Contempt Citation Sought
Contending that the bureau’s officials did have such knowledge in at least one case, animal protection groups went back into court in November, asking the judge to hold the bureau in contempt for violating the July 8 order.
Court documents filed by the horse protection advocates claim that the bureau allowed a Nebraska fee-waiver adopter, A & B Horse Farms, to ship 460 horses from South Dakota to a Montana livestock sales yard, knowing that the the animals were headed for slaughter. Forty-nine of these horses were butchered in Canada before the bureau stepped in and impounded the horses, documents show.
‘We notified Burford that these animals were headed for slaughter, and they ignored the warning,” said John Ohlson, a Reno attorney representing the Animal Protection Institute.
Court records, combined with interviews with bureau officials, horse protection advocates and livestock men provide a close look at what happened in one fee-waiver adoption.
A & B held 150 powers of attorney and took 600 horses, telling bureau inspectors at the big Bloomfield federal holding pens that “future plans for the horses have not been determined at this time.” The horses were all older stallions that had been gelded just before they were put out for adoption in October, 1986. A & B contracted with four ranchers in the area to pasture the animals for a year.
Malnutrition, Starvation Cited
Documents show that before the winter was over, 140 of the horses died. Veterinarians investigating the deaths of 70 animals on one ranch reported to the bureau that these animals died of “malnutrition and starvation.”
This past October, bureau officials ordered A & B to bring the remaining 460 horses into the Yankton, S.D., livestock sales yard owned by Gail Sohler, one of the A & B partners. The horses were inspected before the issuance of titles. When the inspection was completed Oct. 28, three trucks were loaded with 150 horses and shipped to the Montana sales yard to await shipment to Canada.
On Oct. 28, the Fund for Animals learned of the A & B operations and sent a telegram to Burford, putting him on notice that the horses were being commercially exploited in violation of the judge’s order. The fund threatened contempt action if Burford did not act immediately to halt the impending sale.
The bureau denied that any sale was pending. Writing Judge McKibben on Oct. 30, bureau attorneys Lee M. Kolker and John A. Bryson said the horses had been routinely gathered for inspection before issuance of title and informed the court that " . . . as soon as transportation is available, the animals will be shipped back to the ranches and farms where they are maintained.”
By that time, the horses were in a Montana feed yard and 49 of them had been slaughtered in Canada, records and sworn affidavits show. The three A & B partners gave sworn statements saying bureau inspectors knew the animals were headed for Montana and told A & B officials that they could legally ship the horses and that the titles would be mailed to them later.
Denial by Inspectors
BLM inspectors denied that they told A & B partners they could ship the horses before title was issued. And John Boyles, chief of the adoption program, said in his sworn statement, “We assumed that (horses) were going to be moved back to the pastures.”
Boyles also said he learned in early November that the horses had been shipped to Montana and that 49 of them had gone to slaughter in Canada. He immediately ordered the rest of the animals impounded and titles held up, pending an investigation.
Since the bureau had not granted A & B title to the horses and the shipments were made without bureau knowledge, bureau attorney Kolker said the agency was not in contempt of the court order. She said the matter has been referred to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal investigation.
A & B attorney Frank Brady argued that his clients complied with all of the adoption regulations and were only following bureau instructions when they shipped the horses. He said a lawsuit is being considered to recover $100,000 the partners have lost.
In the meantime, bureau officials said they are following the judge’s orders and, as proof, point to the case of M. E. Eddleman of Warden, Mont. Title to 600 horses Eddleman has on pasture is being held up because the rancher, answering a Montana reporter’s question about horses Eddleman had previously pastured, said, “Well, of course (horses) went to slaughter. . . . Everybody knows what is happening, but nobody will admit it.”