Incidents of gross neglect and even starvation have brought an American dilemma back into the news once again
April 24, 1988

Most of the horses stood docilely inside the large steel pen at the bottom of a dirt slope, their dull, windblown coats looking much like bony moonscapes. A few lay sprawled on their sides, eyes closed. It was early April in Bloomfield, Neb., at a federal holding pen for wild horses, but the only thing wild here was the wind.

"You know how these horses smelled when they came in here this week?" said Bruce (Smokey) Stevens, the cowboy watching over the herd, as he walked among the horses. "They smelled like they were dead. It was like they had given up. I had to drag one off the truck. He was so weak he wouldn't get up. We had to shoot that one."

They almost had to shoot another. Stevens pointed to an isolation pen where a small black horse, gaunt and emaciated, stood in a corner, his head down. "When he came in, he wouldn't get off the truck," Stevens said. "We put a halter on him and dragged him off. He didn't have any life in him. That's terrible, the condition he's in. It's plumb ridiculous to let something get like that. He's lucky he's alive."

What this herd of 270 wild horses had just been through, on the bleak Minnewaukan Flats of central North Dakota, was a winter of starvation, dehydration and neglect, a winter that left at least 110 horses dead out of the original herd of 400, and many more missing. It was a winter in which, at times, they had nothing to drink, because the surface water was frozen, and not enough to eat. It was a winter spent on a barren pastureland, hard by Devils Lake, where the windchill factor commonly reaches 50° below zero.

The terrible suffering that befell these animals, and similar devastation to other wild-horse herds, has served dramatically to discredit, once again, federal government efforts to control the nation's wild-horse population by virtually giving away large numbers of animals to private interests under a fee-waiver, mass-adoption program. In the wake of the public outcry over these flagrant indecencies, the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced last week that it is suspending the program indefinitely. The BLM still intends, however, to honor fee-waiver applications already approved through September.

The BLM is caught in a philosophical and legal crossfire from conflicting interests and pressures. The agency estimates there are 38,000 wild horses on 34.9 million acres of public land, about 7,000 more horses than BLM wants out there, and so roundups will continue. Another 8,670 await adoption in federal pens. According to the BLM, each horse costs the taxpayer $165 to round up and $2.25 a day to sustain once it has been captured. Since 1980, the BLM has spent $92 million on the program.

The BLM: 1) uses helicopter roundups to move "excess" horses off public ranges in 10 Western states; 2) collects them in holding pens in places like Bloomfield; 3) allows an individual to "adopt" hundreds of horses, at no fee, by using powers of attorney collected from other people; 4) is supposed to inspect the horses for one year to make sure they are being treated properly; and 5) at the end of the one-year period, if indeed the animals have been cared for, grants title to the new owner.

A number of cases of neglect and abuse have been reported during the waiting period, that of the North Dakota 400 being perhaps the most shocking. And, of course, many of the wild horses have ultimately ended up in slaughterhouses, and then in cans of dog food or on dinner plates in Canada or parts of Europe, where horse meat is considered a delicacy. (Ranchers can usually get between $150 and $250 a head for slaughterhouse horses.) The BLM does not attempt to ascertain what the adopter intends to do with the horses once he owns them. But last summer Howard McKibben, a federal district court judge in Nevada, ordered the BLM to withhold title from any adopter who expressed an intent to exploit the horses—i.e., sell them for slaughter or as bucking stock in rodeos. The BLM had admitted to him that on some occasions it knew before granting title that the adopters intended to slaughter the animals.

Noting that the BLM seemed to believe it was obliged by "some unwritten requirement" to pass title, even if it knew of an adopter's intent to exploit the horses, McKibben wrote, "Such a position defies logic and common sense and is contrary to legislative intent."

That ruling got rancher M.E. Eddleman in trouble in Pompeys Pillar, Mont., where he has had 600 BLM horses in holding pens for more than a year. Last summer, after talking with a reporter about what happens to adopted mustangs, Eddleman was quoted in the Helena, Mont., Independent Record as saying that they go to slaughter. "Everybody knows what's happening, but nobody will admit it," he said. On the basis of that comment and Judge McKibben's ruling, the BLM ordered title for the 600 horses withheld from Eddleman.

In effect, Eddleman was punished for telling the truth. Why else would a rancher, a former cattleman like Eddleman, "adopt" 600 wild horses, many of them older animals who have run wild for years and have never been broken? Animal rights advocates say the intent is obviously to sell them for slaughter. John Boyles, chief of BLM's wild-horse division, disagrees. "Mares can be used for broodstock," he said last week. "That's a legal, legitimate use of a thousand head of [adopted) horses. You can [also] break them and train them to ride. You can use them for pack animals. You can sell them to riding stables." The abusers of the program are the problem, Boyles said: "We've got some individuals out there who have screwed up royally.... [The program] may not be very viable if we are going to continue to have individuals who are taking the animals with the intent of just taking them to slaughter. If they're not really going to try and find a use for the animal that is legitimate, by law, then maybe the program isn't worth it to us."

But by its own admission (to Judge McKibben), the BLM has permitted exploiters to lead wild horses to slaughter through the fee-waiver program. How did the bureau find itself in such a tangle? How did it find itself accused of being, in the words of the Animal Protection Institute of America (API), "the mightiest mustanger of them all?"

Ironically, the policies the bureau has been following flow out of the very legislation that outlawed mustanging (the practice of rounding up wild horses and trucking them to the slaughterhouses) in 1971. By then, the vast numbers of horses that had once roamed the West had been severely reduced, and Congress acted to save them from extinction by passing the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. The legislation declared that "wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" and that they "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment and death."

The act gave the Department of the Interior wide latitude both in protecting the herds and in managing their size, "to achieve and maintain a thriving ecological balance on the public lands." And so, left to roam largely unmolested and with no natural predators, wild horses grew in numbers through the '70s, from the BLM's estimate of 17,000 in 1971 to 54,030 in 1978. That is about 23,000 more horses than the bureau has determined can exist in "thriving" balance with the chief land grazers, livestock and trophy game animals such as deer and elk.

The 1971 act gave Interior the authority to round up unwanted horses and, as a means of disposing of them, to offer them for adoption. By the mid '70s, with the wild-horse population growing rapidly, the BLM began allowing mass adoptions, but there were abuses—horses neglected, degraded or led to slaughter. A bureau release in 1980 stated: "BLM was caught off-guard by the possible extent of horse abuse cases, but steps were rapidly taken to ensure that such large-scale exploitation will not occur again." One step was an amendment to the law, stipulating that one person could adopt no more than four horses a year.

The BLM did not learn its lesson well. Again under pressure to cut the size of herds, the bureau began massive roundups in 1985 and once again launched a mass-adoption program. It circumvented the restriction of four horses per adopter by allowing an individual to gather powers of attorney from any number of people willing to sign up for four horses, thus enabling one person to claim a substantial herd.

In the North Dakota debacle, partners Jerry Cudworth and Glenn DeLorme got their 400 horses by acquiring powers of attorney from 98 Indians on the reservation at Fort Totten. In Oklahoma, cattleman Dale Vernon confirmed he got some of the powers of attorney used to obtain 576 horses from his nephew, Tray Vella, a student at Oklahoma State University, who collected signatures from students in a classroom.

In December 1986, acting on a complaint that some of Vernon's horses were starving in a Hennessey, Okla., pasture, the president of the Humane Society chapter in Wichita, Kans., Ellen Querner, called Robert Schultz, a BLM official in Santa Fe, N.Mex., who assured her he would check it out. Schultz, called, says Querner, to report that one of his men had done a second check and found 11 horses dead due to "floods and mud." She then visited the Oklahoma pasture, where there were 175 horses, and in a field report wrote, "We saw approximately 10 or 12 that were not just thin but life-threateningly emaciated."

Suspicious of the quality of hay in the field, Querner took a sample to a Wichita equine veterinarian, Jennifer Jull-Sullivan, who reported, "In my opinion, this feed is not fit for horses. It is unpalatable, very low in protein, and difficult to digest due to high roughage content."

Vernon denied he ever fed his horses improperly or mistreated them. Asked to account for the deaths of some of his horses, he attributed them to "a twisted gut." Vernon, who eventually sold the other horses, said he did not know if they went to slaughter.

"If they give me the gold, I give them the halter," he said. "I really don't follow them down the road to see what they're gonna do with the horse." The BLM apparently has confidence in Vernon: It is about to deliver another 172 horses to him.

As for the North Dakota 400, Cudworth received his shipment of horses from Bloomfield last July, and by fall most of them were walking a 600-acre pasture of barren ground, brush and poor-quality grass at Minnewaukan Flats. Last winter the herd began dying of hunger and thirst. In January, passersby noticed a few carcasses in the pasture and complained to Benson County sheriff Ned Mitzel.

That was only a foreshadowing of the grim scenes to follow. In connection with the Oklahoma case, Querner had complained that BLM officials "have been doing nothing but making excuses for the care of the horses." In North Dakota, Sheila Bichler of Grand Forks, a Humane Society and API member, said BLM field workers on the case resisted pursuing an aggressive investigation.

It wasn't until early April, after an enterprising reporter from the Grand Forks Herald flew over the flats, that the full extent of the debacle was known. "There were carcasses all over," says the reporter, Randall Howell. His stories got results. On April 5, the BLM impounded the herd and returned it to Bloomfield. Cudworth claims the horses were "fed all the while." Asked by SI what they were fed, he said, "I'm not interested in the story."

According to Robert Hillman, field services director for the API, the North Dakota and Oklahoma incidents are not atypical: "The ranchers' mentality is that these horses are a chance to make a dollar.... The business is to sell them for slaughter. If they have to put out a lot in their care and keeping for that one year, they won't make much in the end. So they just let 'em graze out on the land. If they survive, great; if they don't, well, too bad. They're hardy little beasts."

The 1971 act gives the BLM the authority to kill healthy animals humanely if they go unadopted, but the bureau has never used it. "I don't think the government wants to be in the position of killing excess animals," Boyles says. The BLM is now seeking authority to sell the horses outright after roundups—which would make it a true mustanger, from roundup to slaughterhouse—but the agency had earlier asked Congress for that authority and had been turned down.

Given that and the fact that euthanasia is political dynamite, the bureau's ability to arrive at a merciful solution obviously will continue to be tested. And with the suspension of the mass-adoption, fee-waiver program, the surplus number of horses can only get larger.

The bureau still has the original Adopt-A-Horse program, in which single adopters take from one to four horses for $125 each. Boyles says the bureau will look into making that a more efficient way of disposing of horses.

Some animal rights advocates believe in letting the horses seek their own natural balance. "They haven't established that there are too many," says Frantz Dantzler, a director for the Humane Society of the United States. "I think what they should do is leave them alone." However, says Dale McCullough, professor of wildlife biology and management at the University of California in Berkeley, "I can name you case after case with other species where we've just tried to leave them out there, and we've suffered unacceptable rates of starvation. With the rate at which horse populations are building up on certain ranges, that could be disastrous. We could have massive mortalities."

Fred Wagner, associate dean of the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University, says, "The question becomes, What do you do with the animals you've rounded up? Those animals have to go somewhere, and the question is, Where do they go? That becomes a matter of public value and public taste."

Big game goes to the hunters. Sheep and cattle go to slaughter. The BLM is trying to figure out where the wild horses should go.

At least the bureau knows that they cannot go to those who would exploit, neglect or abuse them. They cannot go to places like the Minnewaukan Flats.

PHOTOCOURTESY BENSON COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPT.More than 100 adopted wild horses suffered a horrible death last winter in North Dakota. PHOTOBARBARA LAING/PICTURE GROUPA helicopter moves horses off public range-land and into the government holding pens. PHOTOPHIL HUBERThis horse was barely able to survive the trip from North Dakota to a center in Nebraska. PHOTOELLEN QUERNERIn an Oklahoma case, a vet questioned the quality of the hay fed to some wild horses. PHOTOPHIL HUBERThe BLM hopes to increase the number of horses placed through its adoption program.

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