Casualties of the vanishing West: How Monied Interests are Forcefully Evicting Wild Horses and Burros

by as published in The Salon

A little-known 2004 amendment to a Nixon-era law allows formerly protected wild mares to be auctioned for slaughter

Former wild horses imprisoned by the BLM photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation
Former wild horses imprisoned by the BLM photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

Chief, a Kiger mustang born in the remote wilderness of Utah, lives with 400 other rescued wild horses and burros in a 1,500 acre sanctuary, hundreds of miles from his original home. Years ago the stallion was captured in a round up led by the Bureau of Land Management. After a long helicopter chase, he ended up in a government-run holding facility for years before being adopted by Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc, CA. Not all horses rounded up by the BLM are as lucky.

The majority of captured equines remain stuck for years, if not for the rest of their lives, in cramped holding facilities that are quickly running out of space. As of July 2015 the facilities held 47,000 wild horses, and the BLM’s holding capacity is set at 50,929. Yet the agency is planning to remove another 2,739 wild horses and burros this year at a taxpayer cost of $78 million.

An example of an emergency holding facility for excess mustangs is a cattle feedlot in Scott City, Kansas. In 2014, a BLM contractor leased the feedlot, owned by Beef Belt LLC, to hold 1,900 mares. The horses were transported from pasture to corrals designed for fattening up cattle. Within the first few weeks of their arrival, at least 75 mares died. Mortality reports acquired from the BLM through the Freedom of Information Act show that as of June 2015, 143 more horses had died. The facility is closed to the public.

BLM’s management of American wild horses and burros has several tales of mismanagement and animal neglect like the one above. Since 1971, the BLM has removed more than 270,000 wild horses and burros from public lands, in what it says is an effort to avoid overpopulation and “to protect animal and land health.” Ideally the rounded up animals should be adopted or shipped to long-term pastures, but in the past several years the number of horses being adopted have fallen dramatically. As a result, every year, more and more of these animals end up languishing in what are supposed to be temporary holding facilities.

Over the past four decades the BLM has eradicated or moved to holding facilities more than 70 percent of the country’s wild horse population. According to BLM’s current estimates, there are only about 48,000 horses remaining in the wild.

The Bureau of Land Management is mandated by law to protect the future of the wild horses and burros of America. In 1971, in response to growing public protest over the indiscriminate capture and slaughter of wild horses by ranchers and hunters, President Richard Nixon signed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, making harassing or killing feral horses or burros on federal land a criminal offense. The law recognized the animals as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

In 2004 the Act was stripped of its central purpose when Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana prepared what is now widely known as “the Burns Amendment.” Taking advantage of his position as chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Burns slipped his bill in with complete secrecy, knowing that committee reports cannot be amended. The bill amending the 1971 Act was never introduced to Congress; it was never discussed or voted on. The amendment allows the BLM to sell older and unadoptable animals at livestock auctions. These auctions often draw ‘kill buyers’ who seek horses for slaughterhouses, as the LA Times reports.

The Burns Amendment overruled critical sections of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, and overturned 33 years of national policy.

“The law was one of the few ever passed unanimously by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. To ignore the democratic will of the general public of the US in order to favor certain minority vested interests, mainly rich individuals and corporations, is a true perversion of democracy and a shameful betrayal,” says wildlife ecologist and author Craig Downer.

Before becoming an advocate for the wild horse and burro cause, Downer worked for the BLM. He conducted stream site inventory and assessment work in their Nevada chapter. During his time at the agency, he learned that wild horses and burros weren’t the animals that were causing stream and lakeside habitat degradation in regions where they roamed free.

”Overwhelmingly it was the livestock, chiefly cattle, that degrade the vital riparian habitats. They are post-gastric digesters while the other large North American grazers are almost exclusively ruminant digesters. Horses and burros also disperse their foraging over vaster areas and into more rugged terrain than cattle,” he says.

Here’s how Downer explains it further. (Excerpted from his presentation at the Wild Horse Summit in 2008):

“Being much less mobile than wild horses and burros, livestock concentrate their grazing pressures in certain areas, especially in and along species-rich stream, marsh, or lake shore habitats known as riparian (which I have experience monitoring with the BLM). Cattle and sheep have destroyed these riparian habitats on a large scale by overgrazing throughout the West — as throughout the world, especially in arid and semi-arid areas, and thus are responsible for the extinction or near extinction of literally thousands of species of plants and animals.

The wild horses, on the other hand, do not linger at watering sites or along riparian areas but disperse their grazing pressure much more broadly in the arid to semi-arid West; and as a consequence they greatly reduce dry parched vegetation. Their post-gastric digestive system is perfectly suited to taking advantage of this drier, usually coarser vegetation, as such does not entail as much metabolic energy involved with the more thorough breakdown of this food when compared with ruminant grazers: cattle, sheep, deer, elk, etc. Their digestion also favors the dispersal of the seeds of many native plant species that are not as degraded in passing through their digestive tracts. These involve species that have in many cases co-evolved for millions of years with horses and even burro-like Asses, developing many mutually beneficial symbioses in the process.”

According to the BLM, there is an overpopulation of horses on public lands. The agency states that because of federal protection and a lack of natural predators, wild horse and burro herds can double in size about every four years, which leads to habitat degradation and unhealthy herds. Yet the agency allows millions of cows to graze on the same lands where wild horses were previously removed.

Cows originate from Europe and thus are adapted to riparian meadow areas. Their grazing can be devastating for dry Western ecosystems, especially in many areas where they outnumber wild horses 50 to 1. According to Downer, well-managed wild horse populations can contribute positively to ecosystems that they have adapted to due to their evolutionary past. “Restoring the missing ‘equid element’ with its post-gastric digestive system works wonders for the plains and prairies as well as the drier regions further west,” he explains.

But it is not only cattle that are granted right-of-way on public lands. In 2010, a controversial round up held in the Calico Mountain Complex of Nevada removed 2,500 horses from their habitat. The round up caused 160 horse deaths, including those of two foals who were chased on icy terrain until their hooves had sloughed off. The eradication of a healthy horse population from such a remote location raised questions.

There were allegations that the removal was initiated to make way for a multi-billion dollar corporate project, the Ruby Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that traverses through northern Nevada on its way from Wyoming to Oregon. The BLM denied any connection, but Pipeline construction began four months after the round up, and the natural gas line now runs through the mountain complex.

BLM spokesperson Greg Fuhs says the agency does not give away rights-of-way to companies. “The BLM authorizes specific pieces of public land for certain projects and charges rent for such use,” he says. “The BLM collects forage fees for livestock grazing, conducts oil and gas lease sales, and requires payment of an annual maintenance fee (unless labor is performed or improvements are made) on mining claims.”

The BLM’s management of wild horses has long been under scrutiny. In 1994 Jim Baca, then director of the BLM, started an internal investigation into illegal practices within the agency. He found that BLM employees were selling wild horses to contractors for slaughter. The scheme involved the use of satellite ranches and so-called horse sanctuaries set up to hide the horses.

The US Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Texas wanted to bring criminal indictments against BLM officials, but the case was closed in the summer of 1997 after federal officials in Washington DC, including officials not involved in the investigation, intervened.

“I believe that my investigation was obstructed all along by persons within the BLM because they did not want to be embarrassed,” the prosecutor, Mrs. Alia Ludlum, wrote in a memo that year, a copy of which, along with thousands of other grand jury documents, was obtained by the Associated Press. “I think there is a terrible problem with the program and with government agents placing themselves above the law,” Ludlum wrote.

According to Baca during the investigation, Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the Interior, told him to back off. Baca left office the same year.

“The wild horse and burro program has always been answerable to only the livestock industry and their political power over Western Senators and Congressmen. All of the administrations bow to that power, ” Baca says.

According to Baca, in failing to understand the importance of western public lands, administrations continue sacrificing them for special interests. “They don’t see any gain to their political careers by rocking the boat.”

Baca believes the horse numbers should be controlled, but they should not be on a slow course to extinction. “Every horse not on the range means another cow and calf that will be. BLM has always been a step child to the whims of the oil, gas, coal, mining and livestock industries.”

Baca believes the idea of special sanctuaries on the range is promising. “The wild horses should be allowed to exist for future generations to appreciate. A wild horse crammed into a corral is nothing more than a life sentence to misery.”

The BLM’s annual wild horse and burro round up is already underway this year (see reports here and here). Wild horse and burro advocates say if the animals are not rounded up, but instead have their numbers managed via fertility control methods, maintaining them would cost virtually nothing – providing a solution for the program’s inefficiency and high cost.

About 60 to 70 percent of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program budget is spent on roundups and holding facilities, while only 6 percent is spent on fertility control and keeping horses on the range. (In 2014, holding horses in off-range facilities cost more than $43 million, which accounted for 63 percent of the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s annual budget. The total lifetime cost for caring for a captured animal that’s not adopted is nearly $50,000.) Redirecting federal funds from costly and traumatic round-ups to in-the-wild fertility management could save taxpayers millions.


  1. Why on earth would you push for PZP on already dwindling herds. It makes you no better than the BLM and their hinchmen. I guess that is why the BLM calls the big money groups “assets.” Everything always boils down to money. Even with groups calling themselves advocates.


    • Heres what I posted on this site – I wish ranting about this made me feel better!

      Having already heard about the foal with the broken leg & the stallion that was killed – more and more animals killed in the name of the BLM. While we hear over & over that these wild horses and burros are “not native” to the US! How can that be when the horses were already here to greet the Spanish explorers? Somehow that doesnt compute does it? Just recently, it became known to the public (although wild horse advocates knew this for 3 years) that the BLM knowingly sold 1700 wild horses to a kill buyer – Tom Davis (look it up online) It only took 3 years for them to actually admit it but seemingly they did nothing wrong – the BLM employees involved in that corruption seem to still be employed there AND one of them, at least, earned a bonus – for making such a large sale! The really sad thing is that after investigating – it was decided there was no need to DO anything about it. Really, anyone just has to stop & think about the numbers of horses & burros that have been removed from OUR (American Taxpayer) public lands – the Herd Areas that have been zeroed out – the horses that have disappeared from holding facilities. In one instance, the mares that lost their long term holding area & were transferred to a feed lot where over 200 died – because it was a former cattle lot? Or they were fed the wrong diet? Alfalfa is a RICH hay – far from the grasses these horses are used to. The BLM doesnt admit to any wrong – they do what they do because they can! What kind of government agency does this sound like?


  2. Great article. Glad to hear there are still journalists that have a spine and do not limit themselves to copypaste the baloney from BLM and so-called “industry”.

    If BLM is not policed or disbanded altogether it will simply degenerate into organized crime and crony capitalism (wait… it is already that!) third-world style. Western rangelands will be nothing but a huge, impoverished wasteland where a handful of individuals live like kings controlling all resources while the rest live in misery off the crumbs that fall of the former’s tables.


  3. Incidentally, I am still working my way through Welfare Ranching” – its not an easy or fun read – BUT certainly tells exactly what livestock grazing is doing to every species that it touches. I have Grandma Gregg to thank for pushing me to read it! Glad she did! Hope more people get educated by it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m reposting IcySpots comment as readers may not have seen it. There is one sentence that should be noted….

    “Salazar told The Gazette in an interview that buyers of wild horses can be prosecuted for falsifying sales applications and for indirectly selling horses to slaughter by reselling to middlemen”

    November 1, 2015 @ 11:29 AM Edit
    USA TODAY, DEC. 12, 2012

    Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is restricting the number of wild horses people can buy from the federal government and promises to prosecute those who sell mustangs for slaughter.

    Salazar’s announcement comes after reports about Tom Davis, a southern Colorado livestock hauler and horse slaughter proponent who has bought more than 1,700 horses from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) since 2009.

    Davis’ purchases account for 70% of BLM wild horse sales since 2009.

    The Gazette of Colorado Springs previously reported that the BLM sometimes contacted Davis to see if he would like to buy more horses.

    Davis has told Colorado officials that he shipped some horses out of state, in violation of brand inspection laws. The Alamosa County district attorney is investigating the transfers. Davis has said he honored contracts promising the animals wouldn’t be slaughtered.

    Salazar told The Gazette in an interview that buyers of wild horses can be prosecuted for falsifying sales applications and for indirectly selling horses to slaughter by reselling to middlemen.

    Salazar also said buyers will be limited to five horses every six months. Larger orders must be approved by the deputy director of the BLM.

    The BLM oversees most of the 35,000 wild horses roaming public lands in the western United States. The horses are protected by law from slaughter.

    The agency has struggled with how to manage growing horse herds, which can double naturally within five years if left unchecked. Horses have been injected with drugs and vaccines to slow reproduction and also are rounded up for adoption.

    The BLM currently has more horses in captivity — more than 45,000 — than are left roaming the range.

    (c) USA TODAY, 2012


  5. Land Management official sentenced in workplace fraud case
    Land Management Official Sentenced in Workplace Fraud Case
    July 7, 2015

    A federal judge sentenced a senior official in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to six months in prison on Tuesday after he was convicted of covering up for a subordinate who kept drawing government pay after leaving the agency for a job in Montana.


  6. From PEER ( Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility)

    Little-Used Law for Federal Contract and Subcontract Employees to Lapse in 2017
    Posted on Nov 02,

    Today, PEER filed a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on behalf of Terry Schaedig who was discharged on September 22, 2014 from his job as an employee of a government contractor after disclosing numerous contract violations to both his management and federal officials responsible for contract oversight. The contract was between the Forest Service and his employer, the National Wild Turkey Federation.

    On December 19, 2014, PEER filed a formal whistleblower complaint in the matter with the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency. In a letter dated September 4, 2015, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declined to act and issued an “Order Denying Relief.” This action exhausted the law’s stipulated administrative process and freed Mr. Schaedig to seek judicial review, which PEER’s filing initiated.


    • In Spain and France most highways where there is a plausible chance of people or large animals crossing them are fenced. The same goes for high speed railway lines. There are underground passes for fauna and water discharge… and Spain is one of the least advanced countries of western Europe! I don’t see why the US can’t do the same, which is theoretically way ahead.

      For secondary, less transited roads they just put up a warning signal and limit speed. The gov just can’t babysit all motorists… its absurd!

      In other words, the road safety excuse is pure BS. And frankly, I have seen cows hanging out inside tunnels during hot summer afternoons and nobody ever made a fuss.




  8. The truth hurts in this piece,the terrible deeds of a few translated into a massive hell bent agency free to do its own will without restraint from anyone including those American voices that demand this tragic train of death to the horses stop! Thank you for your comments Maggie Frazier,well spoken.


  9. A lot of this information in the article is in the Peer White Paper I mentioned last week. Baca was the BLM employee that tried to stop the slaughter so he was pushed out. Would the BLM have to be taken to court to force them to pony up the addresses of all the so-called horse holding pens?? I don’t believe there are 50,000 horses boarded all over the US no more than I believe that there are 40,000 still on the range. Those horses are gone I wish someone could prove me wrong. BLM is a corrupt agency just as 99% of our government agencies are.


    • Isn’t ironic that more is known about secret military facilities like White Sands or Dugway than about the location of the wild horse confinement pens?

      BLM claims it is because “privacy” issues as these re privately-owned property, but in all likeliness it is because these are substandard facilities more like Bouvry’s slaughter feedlot in Shelby than to horse pastures or sanctuaries.

      And now that we mention Bouvry… the closeness of the WY facility to Canada is an invitation to funnel horses to the Canadian slaughter pipeline as CFIA border controls on slaughter-bound horses are even weaker than Mexican SAGARPA ones.


    BLM: Epic Mismanagement, Waste, And Corruption

    The United States government and its agencies are in no position to be wasting hard-earned taxpayer dollars. As it stands, many taxpayers are severely over-taxed as a result of reckless spending by bureaucrats without any regard for the fiduciary duty that the Government and its many agencies are bound to observe.

    The Bureau of Land Management (‘BLM’) is just one example of an autocratic government agency that seems to operate as if it answers to no one and regularly wastes money and resources as it seems to concurrently violate U.S. laws and the rights of American taxpayers (talk about biting the hand that feeds). And as a result of this pervasive attitude combined with the growing number of government agencies that act as if they were fiefdoms, America is languishing under a wave of epic waste of resources and taxpayer dollars

    According to Hope Yen at the Associated Press: “Significant amounts of natural gas on federal lands are being wasted, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year and adding to harmful greenhouse gas emissions, a congressional investigation has found. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office also said the Bureau of Land Management failed to conduct production inspections for hundreds of high-priority oil and gas wells – roughly 1 out of 5 – to ensure full payment of royalties to the U.S.” The article goes on to say that: “The GAO report said it had been urging BLM, an agency of the Interior Department, to update guidelines for the burning or venting of natural gas since at least 2010, when it found 40 percent of it could be captured economically and sold. BLM has yet to do so, although agency officials now say they are in the process of putting together various orders and a proposed rule for comment later this year. Until then, government investigators called BLM’s management of oil and gas “high-risk” for waste and fraud.”

    Concurrently, with the forgoing malfeasance and waste of millions of tax dollars, we have the BLM mismanaging the federally-protected wild horses; they are spending millions more tax dollars to hold wild horses in captivity, horses that should be running free on the public range-land, according to the Federal ‘Wild Burro and Horse Protection Act’. On top of this, the BLM is not providing transparency into their operations, including and with respect to over 1,700 federally-protected wild horses that seem to have been illegally sold for slaughter!


  11. Meet the Incredible Group of Women Who Are Fighting Poachers and Saving Animals in South Africa

    Two years ago the head warden of The Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa sought to address the poaching crisis by bringing together individuals from local communities to form a group that could effectively protect the rhino and the other species in and around the reserve. In doing so, the groups could not only protect the species but educate other locals on the importance of preservation, many of which were hesitant to engage with foreign park officials and quick to succumb to the profit that could be earned from poaching. Today, they’re known as the Black Mambas


    • Wish we could do the same… really. If 500 people showed up at every roundup, crossing BLM’s “exclusion zone” and getting into the corrals they might think twice about them


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