The wild horse scandal that no one wants to face

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1997:

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 prisonbased
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 feewaiver
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 coworkers
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 feewaiver,
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 backdating
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
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
spokeperson 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
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
T i m e s 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 knowledgable 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 extirprate wild horses
and burros from their holdings. The BLM tolerated
wild burros in the Mojave desert, for
instance; only since the 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,
farriests, 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
IGA/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 wornout
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.”

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