To Protect Mustangs, BLM Imposes New Rules on Animal Sales

Cecil Scott and granddaughter Kristin Brentlinger consider horses up for adoption near Ewing, Ill.
Cecil Scott and granddaughter Kristin Brentlinger consider horses up for adoption near Ewing, Ill. "Excess" mustangs and burros were sold by the Bureau of Land Management, but some of them ended up at slaughterhouses. (By Steve Jahnke -- Southern Illinoisan Via Associated Press)
By Brian Faler
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 26, 2005

An Oklahoma man said he wanted the horses for a church youth program -- and to federal government officials, that sounded like a godsend.

The government, under new orders from Congress to begin selling off "excess" wild horses -- and eager to find them good homes -- sold him half a dozen for $50 each. Within days, they were in an Illinois slaughterhouse.

Later that month, on April 25, federal plant inspectors discovered more than a dozen others in that same DeKalb, Ill., facility. The government had sold the horses to a South Dakota Indian tribe. The tribe traded them to a broker, who, in turn, sold them to a slaughterhouse. Thirty-five were killed before officials, with help from Ford Motor Co., intervened.

The government could not legally buy back the remaining horses. But Ford, maker of the Mustang car, could and did, putting up almost $20,000 to repurchase and ship the 52 horses -- 16 at the plant and an additional 36 on the way -- to a horse sanctuary. The government suspended its sales that day, until it could determine what, if anything, it could do to prevent any more of the wild mustangs, which have become synonymous with the spirit of the American West, from being killed.

The Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for the horses, announced last week that it has beefed up legal protections for the animals and will resume selling them as early as this week. The BLM also said it is attempting to strike an agreement with the nation's three horse slaughterhouses to reject wild horses, identifiable by government freeze brands.

"We think that these are positive steps and further underscore what we're trying to accomplish," BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said.

The announcement, which some advocacy groups for wild horses have greeted with skepticism, comes five months after President Bush signed a measure into law ordering the agency to sell some of the wild horses and burros roaming the West. The agency estimates there are still 31,000 out there, scattered across 10 states. An additional 22,000 excess horses have been rounded up and put in government holding facilities.

Excess horses are those deemed by the bureau to be more than their environs can sustain. Wild horses are allowed to roam on 201 separate patches of federal land totaling about 29.5 million acres. The BLM estimates the land supports, at most, 28,000.

That number is based on an ecological calculation that considers the topography, climate, and who and what else is on the land, such as the amount of highway traffic, energy development and number of cattle. Ranchers pay the government to allow their cattle to graze on federal lands.

Some wild horse advocates say that the BLM's estimates are skewed toward the more politically influential livestock industry, contending that the bureau could leave more horses on the range if the much larger cattle population were reduced. The agency defended its estimates. "We feel we are carrying out our obligations under the law to manage for multiple uses," Gorey said.

The BLM conducts annual roundups to remove enough horses -- with no natural predators, their populations can double in five years -- to keep them within the prescribed range. Those horses are taken to government facilities, and many are offered for adoption. But the bureau routinely gathers many more horses than will be adopted. As with stray cats and dogs, Gorey said, there are not enough homes for the horses.

The unwanted animals are held in government and government-contracted facilities, where the BLM provides for their care and feeding. The agency, noting that adopters tend to favor younger and more easily tamed horses, estimated that more than half of the 22,000 animals in its facilities will never be adopted. It also said it expects to spend $20 million this year -- a little more than half of the entire budget for its horse and burro program -- providing for the animals.

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