BLM investigates possible sale of mustangs for slaughter

Nov 9, 2012

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has begun an investigation into repeated sales of wild horses to a single Colorado livestock shipper who critics claim may be transferring the horses to slaughter facilities in Mexico.

At a meeting of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Committee held Oct. 29-30 in Salt Lake City, Edwin Roberson, BLM assistant director of renewable resources and planning, acknowledged to KSL News that an investigation had been initiated. However, Roberson gave no details indicating whether BLM has uncovered evidence that wild horses have in fact been sold for processing.

“I can confirm right now that the inspector general of the Department of Interior is investigating, (and) has an ongoing investigation into those allegations,” Roberson told KSL. “Beyond that, I can’t comment.”

Suspicion of a possible pipeline between BLM horse sales and Mexican processing plants was ignited over a month ago when a story about La Jara, CO, livestock buyer and shipper Tom Davis was released by Pro- Publica, a self-described independent, non-profit newsroom producing investigative journalism in the public interest. Pro-Publica’s editor in chief is Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

The Pro-Publica piece, which ran in the Denver Post, alleged that since 2009, BLM has been selling Davis wild horses in significant quantities, totaling approximately 1,700 head—or 70 percent of all horses purchased through the agency’s sale program— over the past four years. BLM sale documentation obtained by Pro-Publica appeared to back up the allegations, and further indicated that Davis had purchased the horses for $10 a head.

The large number of horses Davis purchased from BLM has raised questions about how he has been able to dispose of them legally, particularly given that the horse market has been soft for years and wild horse adoptions are down substantially. According to reports, Davis claimed he was supplying the horses to movie producers in Mexico, as well as to buyers across the Southeast. However, it has not been possible to trace the horses and Davis has declined to give specifics about his buyers.

Buyers who purchase wild horses under BLM’s adoption program sign a special maintenance and care agreement, and must pass a oneyear inspection by the agency before title of the horse is transferred to the new owner. By contrast, the horses Davis bought were not adopted, but rather purchased through BLM’s less rigorous sale program, which offers horses over 10 years old or that have been repeatedly passed over for adoption at a discounted rate. However, under the sale program, Davis was still required to sign a standard BLM contract guaranteeing that he would not knowingly sell the wild horses for slaughter. Although federal law does not prohibit the slaughter of wild horses, breach of the BLM contract is still a felony.

Adding to the discomfort of wild horse activists is the fact that Davis has made no secret of his advocacy for horse slaughter. In an interview with ProPublica reporter David Philipps, Davis indicated that he has purchased horses from Indian reservations for sale to slaughter facilities over the border, and has been trying to attract investors to bankroll a slaughter facility in the U.S.

Wild horse activist groups have been swift to condemn BLM for selling horses to Davis, reasoning that BLM might choose to turn a blind eye to a possible kill buyer as a means of quietly off-loading excess horses which have been gathered off the range.

Ginger Katherns, executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse activist organization, called the circumstances of Davis’s purchases “very suspicious.”

“We don’t know where they are,” said Katherns of the 1,700 horses Davis has purchased since 2009, adding that “since Davis in a known killer buyer, … and a supporter of horse slaughter and eating horses, we assume that they went to Mexico for slaughter.”

But despite the unusual circumstances, critics’ suspicions of foul play have not yet been confirmed. Beyond being a volume purchaser of wild horses and supporting horse processing, no concrete evidence has yet been produced that would pin Davis with selling mustangs for slaughter. BLM maintains that it has confidence in its buyers, and as yet has no reason to suspect Davis of wrongdoing. According to Sally Spencer, manager of BLM’s wild horse sales program, jumping to conclusions in this case is inadvisable.

“It is no good to just stir up rumors,” Spencer told Pro- Publica. “We have never heard of [Davis] not being able to find homes. So people are innocent until proven guilty in the United States.”

On the other hand, a discovery that mustangs are being sent to slaughter could violently upend the very marginal progress BLM has made in winning the trust of wild horse activists, many of whom claim that BLM secretly disposes of excess horses through processing.

BLM has staked its reputation with horse advocacy groups on its guarantee that under no circumstances does it allow wild horses to be sent to slaughter, an allegation the agency addresses as “Myth #1” on its wild horse webpage as being “absolutely false.” BLM even adds that their refusal to sell horses “without limitation” has made them non-compliant with a 2004 amendment to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that requires them to sell excess horses to any willing buyer.

Although the outcome of BLM’s investigation remains to be seen, one thing is already certain. A failure to spot a kill buyer of mustangs would cause a major upheaval among wild horse activists, and a public relations nightmare for the agency. Without a doubt, this investigation will be closely watched. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent