WASHINGTON — Last week, the Bureau of Land Management altered its rules for buying wild horses and burros by limiting each buyer to a maximum of four animals per six-month period.
The changes come following media reports that since 2008, a single buyer in Colorado has purchased more than 1,700 wild horses from the BLM — almost 70 percent of all horses sold by the agency during that period. The buyer, Tom Davis of La Jara, Colo., cannot account for the whereabouts of all those horses, many of which are suspected to have been sold to Mexican slaughterhouses, according to a joint investigation by Propublica and the Colorado Springs Gazette.
“(The revised policy) marks another step forward in our agency's steady improvement in ensuring the health and humane treatment of wild horses and burros, both on and off the range,” said BLM Acting Director Mike Pool in a prepared statement.
According to BLM estimates, 31,500 wild horses and 5,800 burros live on public lands overseen by the agency in the West. This is about 11,000 more than the total the agency believes the rangelands can support.
In Oregon, the BLM estimates there are 2,093 wild horses and 35 burros, well below the 2,715 maximum envisioned as the state's appropriate management level. But that doesn't mean the BLM has no plans to reduce herds in Oregon.
In September, the agency published an environmental assessment of its wild horse gather plan for the Murderer's Creek herd management area in Eastern Oregon. Even after removing 80 horses last winter, the agency estimates that 250 remain, more than double the 100 the BLM believes is the ideal herd size for the 143,000-acre area.
Without outside intervention, wild horse herds are capable of doubling in four years, according to government studies.
Under one proposal, the BLM would remove hundreds of horses from the area over the next 10 years.
The BLM received more that 6,000 comments following the report's publication, including objections from The Cloud Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of wild horses on public lands.
“The BLM's plan to round up hundreds of Oregon mustangs at a time when the agency's holding pens are full demonstrates its lack of commitment to a sustainable program,” said The Cloud Foundation director Ginger Kathrens in a prepared statement. “Americans need to know that the 50,000 wild horses captured and warehoused by the BLM are in imminent danger of slaughter so long as this agency continues along the same, untenable path.”
The BLM's newly revised sale policy gives a BLM assistant director the discretion to approve the sale of more than four animals at once. Critics maintain this provides a loophole that would allow the BLM to continue the practice that enabled Davis to buy almost 1,700 horses over four years.
“Putting the decision of who gets more than four horses in the hands of the very same BLM managers who were exposed (in media reports) as being responsible for wild horses ending up in the hands of a known kill buyer who ships horses to Mexican slaughterhouses is outrageous,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, in a prepared statement. “This new policy is window dressing for an administration that uses every excuse to look away and only started to ask questions after its immoral and potentially unlawful actions were exposed by the media. It is not a serious attempt to stop federally protected wild horses from ending up at Mexican slaughterhouses,” Roy continued. “The only way to do that is to stop rounding up and removing wild horses from public lands in the West and start answering fundamental questions, such as why the BLM is stockpiling more wild horses than it knows what to do with.”
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
About 49,000 wild horses and burros are living in BLM corrals and pastures. The agency encourages adoption of the captured animals, and sells others to buyers who promise not to resell them for slaughter.
In addition to possible state charges for shipping horses out of Colorado without proper documentation, Davis is the subject of a federal probe being handled by the Department of the Interior's Office of the Inspector General, according to published reports. Officials at that office could not be reached for comment.
When asked about horse sales and Tom Davis by Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Dave Philipps during an election-night appearance in Colorado, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ended the interview abruptly and threatened the reporter.
“You know what, you do that to me again (and) I'll punch you out,” Salazar said on an audio recording of the interview posted by the paper.
Salazar later apologized for his comments.