By Steven Long
Chute Photo by Laura Leigh, Chase Photo by Terry Fitch,
HOUSTON, (Horseback) – The secretive federal Bureau of Land Management has long kept the doors of the giant taxpayer funded pastures where thousands of wild horses are warehoused, well, closed.
But while the doors were closed to press and public, they may have been wide open to a well known Utah killer buyer who was caught hauling 47 older wild horses allegedly to slaughter in Mexico or Canada.
The investigation includes BLM enforcement agents, the FBI, several state agencies, and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in possibly two or more states.
Multiple individuals are targets of the probe. Department of Transportation registration for a cattle truck shown in video by Salt Lake television station KSL was traced by respected animal welfare investigators Animals Angels to Willard, Utah based DK Ranches owned by alleged killer buyer Dennis Kunz.
“There have been suspicions of BLM involvement in the trafficking of wild horse to slaughter since the early 1990s when a formal Grand Jury probe was instigated” said documentary filmmaker Ginger Kathrens whose three PBS “Nature” specials on an iconic horse named Cloud have captivated millions. “The Cloud Foundation has been asking for full public access to all facilities where mustangs are being warehoused for years.”
Kathrens remembers the earlier probe well, but believes chicanery from higher up brought the investigation to a halt.
“Before the first witness could testify in the hearing in a Del Rio, Texas courtroom, the plug was pulled and the investigation findings were never released,” Kathrens told Horseback Online. “Implicated in the investigation are people still employed by the BLM.
In fact one employee with the Wild Horse and Burro Program is in charge of the facilities for the Agency. I have no idea whether there is a any link to these same employees or not.”
“Wild Horse and Burro advocates have always fostered a nagging suspicion that our national icons were being shuttled out the back door of long term holding to slaughter, and this incident validates that fear,” said longtime wild horse advocate and author R.T. Fitch, president of the Wild Horse Freedom Federation.
“But the larger question is why did the BLM intervene and what makes this incident different from the possible hundreds before it, something doesn’t add up,” he said.
“Wild horse and burro advocates have long felt that horses from BLM holding facilities were ending up in slaughter but the secretive nature of the agency and its refusal to provide any accounting or access to its long term holding facilities has made these suspicions all but impossible to confirm or disprove,” said John Holland, president of the Chicago based Equine Welfare Alliance. “The shock among advocates in this case was not that it happened, but that the BLM suddenly decided to take enforcement action. It would be nice to think this is a new direction under Joan Guilfoyle, the BLM’s recently named director of the Wild Horse and Burro program, but we are told she does not take over until September. However, seeing the comments of Utah’s BLM director Gus War in the wake of the seizure was like a breath of fresh air, and we applaud them.”
Tom Gorey, Chief Washington spokesman for the BLM, was unavailable for comment Saturday.
It is unknown if anybody has been charged in the alleged BLM slaughter ring, or if any agency employees are suspects.
Jerry Finch is the founder and driving force of Habitat for Horses, a Hitchcock, Texas based rescue that has handled some of the most difficult seizures in recent history.
“For the BLM to suddenly be concerned about America’s horses going to slaughter is laughable,” he told Horseback Magazine late Saturday. “Since former Senator Burns gave them the out to dump horse by the truckloads, they have been disappearing by the hundreds, if not by the thousands. That this truckload was stopped means that someone broke the silence of corruption and squealed.”
Since Horseback Magazine began investigations into practices of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program, unconfirmed reports have repeatedly reached the magazine claiming the sighting of 18 wheel cattle trucks hauling horses from BLM facilities in the dead of night. The agency has steadfastly denied horses are being taken from pastures and sent to slaughter.
However, BLM branded horses are sometimes spotted in USDA holding pastures and at slaughterhouses carrying the BLM brand.
“The BLM refuses to give the public an accurate accounting of the horses they have captured or to allow anyone but their own to see these supposed holding areas except on a very limited basis. Why? What is the BLM hiding?” Finch asked. “People are being paid a per horse rate to care and feed these animals. If the horses aren’t there, then where is the money going?”
Gorey states that the BLM does not send horses to slaughter.
However, the agency doesn’t keep track of its horses after they are sold, critics say.
It is estimated that there are app. 30,000 horses of all ages housed under lock and key on private property that the agency refuses to grant access to on a routine basis.
The reason, “the horses are on private land,” Gorey has repeatedly stated citing the federal privacy act. According to the BLM, 10,755 wild horses were removed from public lands and placed in giant holding pastures in 2010.
Ranchers in western states frequently call the Mustangs, “the cockroaches of the west” and view them as a nuisance.
The agency has refused to allow an independent audit of the number of horses held privately by ranchers at taxpayer expense, despite the fact that BLM controls app. 243 million acres of mostly vacant land where the horses could be housed for free. The horses compete for grazing land with more than 1 million cattle that inhabit leased pastures at the fire sale rate of $1.35 per cow and calf per month.
The horses seized in Utah are over the age BLM offers for adoption. When such horses are sold, buyers agree not to sell them to slaughter, the BLM says.
The wife of the owner of the cattle truck which carried the horses told Utah reporters for the Deseret News and KSL-TV, “We are known for buying slaughter horses,” she said, “but it was just our truck that was being used.” The woman claimed the horses were Texas bound but not destined for slaughter, despite the fact that Mexican slaughter houses are just across the U.S. Mexico border from El Paso.
Finch, like many others, believes the BLM would rid western lands of all wild horses.
“The next move by the BLM will surely be a cry that they can no longer afford to support all the wild horses they have taken and to ask Congress to add an amendment to allow them to sell horses without restriction. That should make the non-thinking horse haters in Congress squeal in delight.”
“Bottom line, older wild horses should never be removed from their homes on the range and caring BLM employees have said as much to me,” Kathrens said. “Older mustangs are particularly vulnerable, not just because they have trouble adapting to incarceration, but because they are not attractive as adoption animals, making them targets for sale and potential purchase by killer buyers. Are unscrupulous government employees and private contractors involved in the current trafficking case? Until that question can be answered, there should be an immediate halt to round up operations and the subsequent hauling of wild horses to holding facilities where the public is denied access.”
Kathrens is calling for a federal tracking system to document the whereabouts of every wild horse under BLM control. “BLM needs to prove the whereabouts of every animal they have removed, particularly these older animals who have been rounded up in the last few years. If we can track an orange from the time it leaves the grove to the time it is sold at the grocery store, BLM can certainly implement a tracking structure for these federally protected mustangs.
Until they can implement this kind of tracking, no wild horses should be removed from the safety of their ranges.”