By Tom McGhee, The Denver Post
A report that found the Bureau of Land Management carelessly sold mustangs to a buyer who shipped them to slaughterhouses came as little surprise to advocates who believe the agency is incapable of handling the growing herds that roam federally protected land.
Since 1978, when the BLM first implemented a sales program as a way to control herd sizes, it has been against federal law or policy to send wild horses sold through the program to slaughter.
"This report paints a pretty clear picture of government incompetence and a deliberate attempt to subvert the federal law that is supposed to protect" the horses, said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
Herds that roam areas in 10 Western states, including Colorado, are growing by 20 percent or more each year. Left unchecked, they can reach a point where the land no longer supports them.
The agency's solution has been to round up thousands of horses each year. While some are adopted, most are maintained in holding facilities, where there are presently 47,329 animals.
The BLM is running out of room and has cut back on the number of animals it rounds up.
Ultimately, the agency wants to have the ban on selling the horses to slaughter overturned, Roy said.
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey denied that charge. Congress will not fund horse slaughter, and the BLM has no intention of selling animals to those who would have them butchered, he said.
But the report by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General did little to assuage Roy's concerns.
Investigators found that Colorado livestock-hauler Tom Davis did send horses to slaughter and that the BLM "failed to follow its own policy of limiting horse sales and ensuring that the horses sold went to good homes and were not slaughtered."
State and federal prosecutors have declined to press charges.
TJ Holmes, of the Colorado Chapter of the National Mustang Association, said slaughter should never be considered as a management technique. "If slaughter exists as an option, where is the incentive to develop a functioning management plan to keep the majority of wild horses wild on their home ranges?"
Beyond concerns about slaughter, Roy and others accuse the BLM of relying too much on roundups rather than contraceptive drugs and of pandering to ranchers who graze cattle on acreage her group believes should be the sole preserve of horses.
In September, the agency rounded up 167 horses in northwest Colorado's West Douglas Herd area, and inmates in Cañon City are now training them for adoption.
But not all of the horses are so lucky. In drought-stricken Nevada this summer, the BLM conducted five emergency roundups to save some animals from starving.
Some favor selling excess animals to so-called kill buyers, saying it is more merciful than letting them starve.
"If you are a person who thinks slaughter is the worst thing in the world, you should see how those horses are suffering out there on the range," said Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts in Colorado's Rio Blanco County.
If there is widespread agreement on anything involving the animals protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, it is that the present system of controlling populations is unsustainable.