BLM Up To Same Dirty Old Tricks
Update from Jill Starr, Sept. 13: “I want everyone to know that there are more horses piling up in the Fallon Livestock auction corrals pending another killer sale this Saturday. They are hush hush about where the horses are coming from. Lots of speculation, but they are definitely wild horses. And they will definitely be purchased by the knackers and sent to Mexico. We have one donor who is 21 years old willing to bail out as many as $10,000 will buy – but we can’t find a permanent home for them. Any adopters or land owners willing to make some room? There will be about 175 sold – again.”
Wild horse advocates are asking the federal government to investigate allegations that the Bureau of Land Management sent 172 Nevada mustangs to an auction attended by “slaughter buyers” in July.
The horses were rounded up by the BLM in the Pilot Creek Valley area near Wendover and auctioned off in Fallon on July 10. By law, federally-protected horses can’t be sold for slaughter, but the agency says the horses sent to the auction were abandoned domestic horses or their offspring, not federally-protected mustangs.Such “estray” or “feral” horses aren’t covered by the 1971 law that protects established herds of free-roaming mustangs. Federally-protected wild horses can’t be legally sold for food, but estrays can be sold for eventual slaughter in Mexico or Canada, where firms provide horse meat for human and animal consumption.
“I’m disgusted the BLM did what it did with these horses,” said Jill Starr, president of Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue. Starr bought 169 of the horses at the auction. Six have been adopted and the remainder will be offered for adoption or released in a sanctuary, she said.
“It doesn’t take a biologist to know that these are not ranch horses gone wild,” Starr said. “The BLM just called them estrays to take away their protection… If it wasn’t for the people who donated (to Lifesavers) those horses would be burgers in Europe by now.”
Bureau of Land Management officials said all wild horses were removed in 1993 from the federal herd management area closest to where the free-roaming horses were rounded up in July. Because the federally-protected horses were removed, the animals gathered recently must be estrays, officials said.
“The BLM makes the majority of the decisions on estrays based on physical appearance and or brands on the animals as well as history of unauthorized horse activity in the area,” said Bryan Fuell, field manager of BLM’s Elko District Office. “Because of monitoring activities and grazing operator-furnished information, we generally know where estray or unauthorized horses are present.”
BLM records indicate all wild horses in the Toano Herd Area near Pilot Valley were rounded up in 1993. Yet, BLM mustang census lists from last year show the Toano Herd Area contained 168 federally-protected wild horses. Some of those animals are among the 172 “estrays” gathered in July, the agency confirmed last week.
The BLM said the animals in the census were listed as wild horses in error. The horses gathered and sent to auction were strays from ranches, officials said.
Wild horse advocates countered that the agency has no scientific basis for determining whether free-roaming horses are descendants of long-established mustang herds and thus federally-protected or whether they are domestic strays or their offspring. Because the BLM can make decisions subjectively, the critics argue, the agency can remove federal protection and break federal law anytime it’s expedient for it to do so.
Based on the responses by the BLM about the decisions made in Pilot Valley, “apparently, the BLM can decide at random that they no longer want to manage a herd,” said Vicki Tobin of the Equine Welfare Alliance, a wild horse advocacy group.
The concern about federal management of wild horses comes in the wake of the BLM’s plans to cull about 12,000 of 38,000 mustangs and burros from Western ranges this year. Most of the animals will be sent to long-term pastures in the East or Midwest, according to the agency’s current plan.
BLM officials said their roundups are based on science — measurements of how much the range can support in the face of multiple uses, including wildlife and cattle foraging. They said the designation of the Pilot Valley horses as estrays is based on “empirical evidence.”
Wild horse advocates disagree.
Agency admits mistake
Agency officials said designating those animals as wild horses on the official 2009 count was an error.
“For planning and budgeting purposes, BLM included the estray horses within Pilot Valley as being within the Toano Herd Area so as to include them in the gather and contracting schedule,” Fuell said. “To the public, this may seem as if the BLM is counting them as wild horses, but they are not wild. They were accounted for in order to adequately create a gather plan and for budgeting purposes only.”
In other words, the “estrays” were lumped in with the protected mustangs so that the agency could budget the money to remove them from the range.
He said the mistake is rare and the rest of the agency’s estimates of the about 38,000 wild horses in other herd areas are valid.
Fuell said the agency usually decides whether horses are estrays or federally-protected wild horses based on “physical appearance.” But he also said that “to say the (Pilot Valley horses) are wild because they look wild doesn’t mean anything because after several generations in the feral state, all horses take on a certain look similar to wild stock because of the environment in which they live.”
Wild horse advocates said the agency is contradicting itself and using “double talk” to cover its violations of law. They said deliberatley misrepresenting the number of wild horses on a given herd area is fraud, not a “mistake.”
Starr said BLM officials are “making up the rules as they go along.” She said about 30 of the 172 captured horses were clearly abandoned ranch animals or their offspring, but the remainder shared the characteristics of a federally-protected wild band.
“These were very typical mustangs,” she said. “They have that red dun coloring you expect from wild horses. There were no pintos, no Appaloosas. I’ve never seen a herd that was so clearly wild. Everything about them suggests they were isolated, a very old herd and not ranch horses or their offspring.”
If they are wild mustangs, she said, the BLM broke federal law by sending them to the auction. She said the horses probably wandered off a BLM range into the Pilot Valley area — something the agency says isn’t possible because horses won’t cross highways or railroad tracks — and were designated estrays so the BLM could avoid the legal problems of selling off mustangs.
Starr said she plans to have DNA tests done on the animals, but Fuell said genetics won’t prove anything.
“To accurately compare the Pilot Valley estray horses to wild horse herds, you have to be able to compare them to a baseline genetic source,” he said. “Wild horses in general compare to other horses at a rate of something like 98 percent, so it would be hard to conclusively state the Pilot Valley estray horses are from wild horse origin without clear genetic markers of the original Toano herd.”
Starr said she will attempt to find example DNA from that herd’s bloodline. She said the horses’ overall genetic makeup also will be helpful in determining their origin. Solving the mystery of the Pilot Valley herd will help make sure the BLM follows federal law in the future, she said.
“These are not ranch horses, they are mustangs, the very animals the 1971 law was designed to protect,” Starr said. “They should have been protected and not swept up and dropped off at a slaughter auction a few days later.”