By David Kihara, The Las Vegas Sun
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a well-known defender of wild horses in Nevada and the West, has been accused of supporting changes to long-standing protections for the horses -- changes that have led at least 41 wild horses to the slaughterhouse.
At the center of the issue is the controversial "Burns amendment," which was introduced by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. The amendment allows the BLM for the first time in the agency's history to sell wild horses to anyone, including horse traders looking to make a quick buck by selling the previously protected animals to slaughterhouses.
Burns introduced the amendment into the immense federal budget bill last fall.
Burns' spokesman, James Pendleton, said that Reid assisted Burns in drafting the amendment despite Reid's very public opposition to the amendment.
"Reid was very involved with Burns in drafting the amendment," Pendleton said on Tuesday.
The changes specifically direct the BLM to sell off wild horses that are at least 10 years old or have been unsuccessfully put up for adoption three times. Since the amendment went into effect, 41 wild horses sold by the BLM have been slaughtered at Cavel International Inc., an Illinois slaughterhouse, according to news reports.
The BLM has sold about 2,000 wild horses since the amendment went into effect, and has delivered about half of those to the purchasers. The BLM, however, has halted all sales of wild horses after it received reports that wild horses had been sold to a slaughterhouse, said Heather Feeney, spokeswoman for the BLM in Washington.
According to Pendleton, the two senators "worked aggressively together" to "craft the wording of the amendment" on the wild horse amendment during the joint House-Senate conference committee on interior appropriations meetings in the fall.
During a meeting between Burns and Reid at Reid's office in Washington that fall, the two senators went over the language of the amendment and Reid "gave his support" to the wording that was introduced to the omnibus spending bill, Pendleton said.
But Tessa Hafen, Reid's spokeswoman, said Reid has never supported the Burns amendment and never helped draft the amendment's language.
Reid and Burns staffers had discussions about wild horse legislation -- but not about what became the Burns amendment regarding horse sales, Hafen said. The staffers discussed a Reid proposal that would increase the share of Bureau of Land Management funding for wild horse management in Nevada, Hafen said.
The alleged connection between Reid and the contentious amendment came to light on May 8 when the Washington Post published a letter from Wyoming freelance writer and rancher Sharon Salisbury O'Toole. O'Toole came out in support of the Burns amendment and wrote that Reid was a "co-sponsor" of the legislation.
Hafen said Reid's office is going to ask that a correction to the letter be published.
"It (the letter) is incorrect," Hafen said. "Sen. Reid did not co-sponsor the amendment."
In the past, Reid has introduced legislation that would protect wild horses, such as Senate Bill 1508 that sought to increase penalties for killing or abusing wild horses or burros, and Senate Resolution 149 that honored wild horses as national heritage resources.
Pendleton said that Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was also aware of the language in the amendment but did not play a part in drafting the changes to the law. Ensign, like Reid, has publicly criticized the Burns amendment. Ensign also plans to introduce legislation that would ban the interstate shipment of horses for slaughter.
Ensign is a veterinarian. His spokesman, Jack Finn, said the senator was not involved in crafting the Burns amendment.
"(Ensign) is doing what he he can to protect wild horses," Finn said.
Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Jon Porter, R-Nev., oppose the Burns Amendment.
Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., doesn't oppose the Burns Amendment, but his spokeswoman, Amy Spanbauer, said he was in favor of finding other ways to prevent horses from being slaughtered, such as spending more money for Nevada's horse adoption program.
There are more than 37,000 wild horses on BLM public lands, most in the West. Nevada, with about 19,000, is home to the most wild horses and burros of any state.
Despite the denials by Reid's office, Pendleton said that Burns on Tuesday confirmed that Reid approved of the Burns Amendment when they met in Reid's office.
He said, however, that there is no documentation such as e-mail correspondences, recorded minutes of meetings or any letters with Reid's signature that would back up his claims.
Pendleton conceded that it was essentially a "he said-she said" situation, pitting the words of both senators against one another.
There is also no relationship between Burns, Burns' staff and O'Toole, the author of the letter, he said when asked. At no time did anyone from Burns' office request that O'Toole write a letter regarding the wild horse issue, he said.
"We were absolutely speechless and surprised" to see the letter appear in print, he said. O'Toole's letter has been posted on Burns' Web site.
O'Toole could not be reached for comment.