BLM hopes to sell wild rides at the Mustang Ranch
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1999:
RENO––Sex sells. Sex was notoriously
sold at the Mustang Ranch brothel in
Storey County, Nevada, for 32 years.
Holding more than 5,500 wild horses
captured in past roundups, more than roam the
range in any state but Nevada, and under pressure
to capture more, the U.S. Bureau of Land
Management desperately needs to sell more
Americans on adopting a mustang, or two
mustangs, under a foal-and-dame program
started in 1998––or needs to sell Congress on
funding more wild horse sanctuary space, not
open to competitive use such as cattle grazing.
In 1997 the BLM rounded up 10,443
wild horses, managing to adopt out 8,700, but
ranchers, hunters, and environmentalists
opposed to the presence of allegedly nonnative
species want another 16,500 horses
removed from the range, immediately. Their
ire was elevated earlier this year when Cornell
University researcher David Pimentel reported
that wild horses eat about $5 million worth of
forage per year, otherwise accessible to cattle,
sheep, and hunted populations of deer, elk,
The rancher-dominated Nevada legislature
has been especially vehement, approving
legislation in May 1999 which allows
landowners to sue the BLM if allegedly problematic
horse herds are not removed from private
property promptly upon request.
Further pressure for quick removal––
and perhaps for repeal of the protection of wild
equines on BLM land conferred by the 1971
Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro
Protection Act––may come from the cabinetlevel
Invasive Species Council convened in
March by U.S. President Bill Clinton, with a
mandate to find ways and means of extirpating
all non-native wildlife from federal property.
Two of the three council members are Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt, whose department
has aggressively pursued extirpations of feral
animals throughout the Clinton administration,
and Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman,
whose policies tend to favor ranchers and
expansion of USDA Wildlife Services, the
federally funded exterminating agency formerly
called Animal Damage Control.
ADC personnel were assigned to
shoot wild equines on non-BLM federal holdings
as recently as 1994.
Far from adequately funding wild
horse removal for adoption, Congress in 1998
cut the BLM wild horse adoption budget by $1
million. Because of the cut, and the glut of
horses in custody, the BLM captured only
4,830 in fiscal 1999, ending in October, of
whom 2,480 were captured in Nevada.
The Nevada total included about
1,500 horses captured from 23 herds right at
the end of the fiscal year. Displaced by summer
wildfires, the affected herds were said to
be in jeopardy of starving during the winter.
Younger horses were sent to Palomino Valley;
older horses, believed to have poor adoption
prospects, were trucked to the BLM longterm
care facility near Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
The 320-acre Mustang Ranch property
was forfeited to the federal government
and the last brothel residents were evicted earlier
this year, after the owners were convicted
of fraud and racketeering.
The BLM urgently needs a new Wild
Horse and Burro Adoption Center, having
long since outgrown a 160-acre facility opened
in 1973 at Palomino Valley, Nevada, about
15 miles northeast of Reno. The Mustang
Ranch, near Virginia City, already has most
of the buildings and other accommodations
that an up-to-date equine adoption center
would need. Equipment formerly used to distribute
X-rated videos could be used to hold
televised online horse auctions, a technique
long used by cattle auctioneers, but tried by
the BLM for the first time in August 1999.
Therefore, Nevada BLM director
Bob Abbey in September proposed to the U.S.
Attorney’s Office in Las Vegas that his program
might take over the Mustang Ranch.
Objected Storey County commissioner
Greg “Bum” Hess to Martin Griffith of
Associated Press, “The brothel paid a lot more
in tax revenues to the county than horses
would ever pay. It might bring a few tourists,
but not like the brothels.”
Added Storey County commission
chair Chuck Haynes, “I see it as a touchyfeely
kind of thing to rationalize the federal
seizure of county property. We’ve struggled
for many years with a tourism-based economy,
and I don’t see it helping the county.”
But Hess and Haynes may have
underestimated the appeal of wild horses.
Visiting them is far more popular than looking
after them. About 170,000 people per year
visit the Palomino Valley adoption center––
approximately one person for every horse it
has actually placed in 27 years.
Washoe County wild horse advocate
Betty Kelly, also interviewed by Griffith,
seemed to think the Abbey proposal would be
“I’m afraid it’s just another gimmick
to get rid of our wild horses,” Kelly lamented.
If nothing else, the Mustang Ranch
idea drew attention to the BLM wild horse program
while diverting reporters who had just
begun to amplify a mid-September finding
from a BLM review of records at four USDAapproved
horse slaughtering plants that of
57,200 horses killed in 1998, 571 (1%) had
been BLM adoptees.
Seven of the horses were illegally
sold to slaughter before the BLM relinquished
title to the adopters, which by law is not done
until the horses have been with the adopters for
at least one year. The sellers are reportedly to
be prosecuted. Five horses were sold to
slaughter on the day title was issued, 181
more were sold to slaughter within three
months of title issuance, and another 69 were
sold to slaughter within a year of title issuance
(within two years after the adopters took physical
custody of the horses). The summary:
Horses Years owned Years titled
250 2 or less 0 to 1
123 3-to 4 1 to 2
75 4 to 5 2 to 3
64 5 to 6 3 to 4
123 6 plus 5 plus
The findings actually refute the contention
of Associated Press reporter Martha
Mendoza in a 1997 expose that the BLM is
routinely sending “thousands” of horses to
slaughter via “adopters” whose only interest in
them is making a quick turnaround profit on
horseflesh. Except for people who have yearround
access to good-quality pasture, the cost
of keeping a horse for a year typically exceeds
the usual killer-buyer payment of $500-$800.
Of the 39,470 wild horses whom the
BLM believes occupy public lands in the U.S.
west, based on 1998 herd counts, about
23,000 are said to be in Nevada.
Officially, the numbers have more
than doubled and perhaps even tripled since
the horses were protected from mass roundups
for immediate slaughter by the 1971 Wild and
Free Ranging Horse and Burro Protection
Act––and are close to double the BLM carrying
capacity estimate of 22,778.
But International Society for the
Protection of Mustangs and Burros president
Karen Sussman, of Scottsdale, Arizona, disputes
the BLM figures. Sussman in November
1998 told Albuquerque Journal reporter Rene
Romo that as few as 20,000 wild horses may
remain at large, after the aggressive captures
of recent years, which cut the officially estimated
population by 5,000.
Since 1993 the number of recognized
herds has declined from 303 to 196,
Sussman said, and 70% of the remainder have
fewer than 100 members, considered the minimum
self-sustaining herd size.
Other public landholding agencies,
not covered by the Wild and Free Ranging
Horse and Burro Protection Act, continue
ousting wild equines.
Some are shot where they stand, an
approach favored by the National Park
Service. Wild Burro Rescue, of Onalaska,
Washington, capturde 87 burros this year in
Death Valley National Park––more than in any
three previous years combined––to keep Park
Service shooting plans there suspended.
Between 1987 and 1994, when Wild Burro
Rescue began annual captures in Death Valley,
the Park Service shot 400 burros there.
Sussman and volunteers in May
1999 hauled the last 72 wild horses from the
White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to
the 15,000-acre Alan and Asta Amiotte ranch
on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South
Dakota. Lakota Sioux medicine man Richard
Moves Camp on July 19 blessed the clifftop
site where Sussman hopes to build a National
Wild Horse and Burro Heritage Center––if she
can raise the funds.
The horses, whose herd was once
estimated at 1,800, were evicted from White
Sands because they purportedly imperiled the
endangered White Sands pupfish by causing
silting in waterholes.
The New Mexico Department of
Game and Fish is reportedly also trying to cut
the White Sands population of African oryx.
Introduced for hunting in 1969, the herd has
grown to more than 3,000. Some oryx have
strayed into White Sands National Monument,
managed by the Park Service, whose policy is
to kill non-native species wherever they
appear. New Mexico will accordingly issue
700 permits this year to shoot oryx within the
missile range, and another 200 permits to
shoot oryx found outside the missile range.
The National Park Service in
September 1998 evicted the last 16 wild horses
from Santa Cruz Island, within Channel
Islands National Park, off the coast of southern
California. They were reportedly taken to
a private sanctuary near Red Bluff, California.
An alleged Park Service effort to
extinguish the herd occupying Shackleford
Banks, off North Carolina, was thwarted,
however, when Congress passed legislation
authorizing a permanent resident herd of
approximately 110. The Park Service removed
and killed 81 Shackleford horses in 1996, on
the pretext of eradicating equine infectious
anemia. The Foundation for Shackleford
Horses took nine horses found to have antibodies
to the disease in 1997 and 1998 into permanent
quarantine. None of the remaining 114
Shackleford horses have been exposed to
equine infectious anemia, according to testing
done in January 1999.
Equine infectious anemia was also
why the BLM––pushed by Utah state veterinarian
Mike Marshall––killed 60 of 440 wild
horses who were captured and tested in Utah
during 1998. Animal Legal Defense Fund
staff attorney Valerie Stanley won four
restraining orders from Washington D.C. federal
district judge Gladys Kessler against
killing 12 foals born to infected mares. Eleven
of the foals also tested positive. But young
foals often produce false positives. Eventually
the foals were quarantined by the Oklahoma
State University School of Veterinary
Medicine. All tested negative within six
months, and were adopted in April 1999.
The BLM expected to find about
1,000 horses and a 15% rate of infection
among the Utah herds, after the disease hit 29
of 200 horses on the Uintah and Ouray
Reservation. The infection rate was accurately
estimated, although 27 of the diseased horses
were among just one group of 51 rounded up
near Vernal, but the population estimate was
so high as to support Sussman’s claim that the
BLM in effect counts each horse twice.
In addition to official culling, wild
horses are often subject to unauthorized capture
or massacre. In recent incidents:
• A one-eared wild horse who survived
a 1989 mutilation attack near Delta,
Utah, was on September 26, 1999 found at
Swasey Springs with a fatal gunshot wound.
• Keith McClung, 42, of Klamath
Falls, Oregon, was in March 1999 fined $150
and put on probation for a year for shooting a
wild horse during May 1998.
• Earl John Whitehorse, 40, of
Manila, Utah, David Henry Thoman, 45, of
Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Michael Dwain
Reynolds, 31, of Cheyenne, were all convicted
in 1998 of illegally capturing horses for personal
use. Seven alleged BLM horses were
found in their possession.
• The BLM in April 1998 offered a
still unclaimed $1,000 reward for information
leading to the conviction of whoever killed
five wild horses near Cedar City, Utah
• Most notoriously, Scott Brendle,
22, Darien Brock, 21, and Anthony Merlino,
20, are to be tried soon in Virginia City for
allegedly shooting 34 wild horses at
Largomarcino Canyon, Nevada, during three
days beginning at Christmas 1998. Brendle
and Brock, both then lance corporals in the
U.S. Marine Corps, were dishonorably discharged
soon after their indictment.
Proceedings in the case were delayed
throughout the summer because the attorney
representing one of them was preoccupied with
the Mustang Ranch case.