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Lawsuit: Wild horses ending up in slaughterhouses



By Shelly Bradbury

The Denver Post

and © The New York Times Co.

Despite federal protections, wild horses across the West are ending up in slaughterhouses under a new Bureau of Land Management adoption program, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

The lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit Friends of Animals, alleges that a 2019 adoption program for wild horses is circumventing federal law that forbids the wholesale slaughter of wild horses and that the BLM did not follow proper procedures when establishing the new program, which offers individuals $1,000 to adopt a wild horse but then does little to stop the new owners from selling the horses to slaughterhouses.

“It’s like sticking their head in the sand, ‘Oh we sold it to a buyer who said they would take care of them, and that’s it,’ ” said Michael Harris, director of the Wildlife Law Program at Friends of Animals. “ … That is not what is happening; the horses are being taken down, resold and sold to the slaughterhouses.”

He pointed to a May investigation by The New York Times that found several instances in which wild horses adopted through the program were sold at slaughter auctions as soon as owners could legally do so — 12 months after the adoption.

Adopters vow not to sell the horses to slaughterhouses or middlemen, but the BLM does not enforce that promise, the investigation found.

Wild horses once roamed North America in the millions, but as the open range disappeared in the early 20th century, they were nearly all hunted down and turned into fertilizer and dog food. When they finally were protected in 1971, there were fewer than 20,000 left.

Once protected, though, the remaining herds started growing again — far faster than the government was prepared for.

The BLM estimates there are close to 100,000 wild horses in herd management areas spread across the West, with about 2,100 in Colorado. The agency views that population as unsustainable and wants to reduce the nationwide population to about 26,000 horses, and to about 800 wild horses in Colorado, according to a March 2020 report published by the agency.

The bureau did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday. The agency is authorized to remove horses from public land — and did so with about 11,000 horses in the 2020 fiscal year — but under federal law, officials can’t slaughter the horses or enable them to be slaughtered.

The bureau has never been able to find enough people willing to adopt the untamed broncos it removes.

So surplus mustangs — about 3,500 a year — have gone instead into a network of government storage pastures and corrals known as the holding system.

There are now more than 51,000 animals in holding. Bureau leaders repeatedly have proposed culling the storage herds, but they have been blocked by lawmakers mindful that a vast majority of voters do not want symbols of their heritage turned into cuts of meat.

In 2019, the bureau instead launched the Adoption Incentive Program, which is built on the idea that paying adopters $1,000 a head is far cheaper than the $24,000 average lifetime cost of keeping a horse in government hands.

The program requires that individuals take no more than four horses a year, and adopters are not paid in full for the horses or given the title for 12 months.

The program nearly doubled the number of horses leaving the holding system, and the bureau called it “a win for all involved” that was helping “animals find homes with families who will care for and enjoy them for years to come.”

The bureau’s once-sleepy adoption events were transformed.

“It became a feeding frenzy — I have never seen anything like it,” said Carol Walker, a photographer who documents the wild herds of Wyoming.

In February, she arrived at an event in Rock Springs, Wyo., and found a line of trailers a half-mile long. When the gates opened, people rushed to sign up for adoptions without even inspecting the mustangs.

“Those people weren’t there because they cared about the horses,” Walker said in an interview with the Times. “They were there because they cared about the money.”

To be sure, tens of thousands of wild horses have been adopted over the years by people who kept and cared for them as the law intended.

Some became ranch horses, some work with the Border Patrol, and one became a world champion in dressage.

Getting mustangs out of storage is critical for the bureau because its wild horse program is now in a crisis. Managers warn that the growing herds could graze public lands down to dirt, which would devastate cattle ranchers who compete for grass, and harm delicate desert landscapes and native species.

Friends of Animals maintains that the wild horse population does not need to be reduced, Harris said.

“Horses are just being pushed into smaller and smaller areas to make room for a combination of cattle and sheep, and that is the environmental problem,” Harris told The Denver Post. “ … There’s simply no indication it is any more of a problem than BLM is making a problem to accommodate these political interests. There are, at best, 120,000 horses on the range in nine states covering literally millions of acres. There were at one point over a million wild horses, and their population is more stable when they are given freer range.”

The nonprofit’s lawsuit seeks to force the bureau to temporarily halt the adoption program to do a more complete analysis of the program’s impact. Shelly Bradbury: 303-954-1785, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @shellybradbury



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