Attorneys to BLM: Suspend adoption program or face lawsuit

Scott Streater, E&E News

June 10, 2021

Wild horse advocates are no longer content to wait for the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to investigate their claims that animals adopted through a BLM program are being sold at auctions for slaughter.

American Wild Horse Campaign attorneys sent a formal legal petition to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Nada Culver, BLM's deputy director of policy and programs temporarily leading the bureau, warning them to shut down the adoption incentive program due to "significant violations to federal law" associated, in part, with some of the federally protected animals ending up at auctions.

Interior and BLM must either shut down the program that pays people to take horses and burros rounded up on federal rangelands or "impose a moratorium on any further payments under the [program] while the agencies" start over from scratch, and "engage in formal notice-and-comment rulemaking" for a new adoption program that complies with federal law, the petition says.

The petition — filed by Eubanks & Associates PLLC, a Washington-based public interest law firm — gives Haaland and Culver until June 30 to formally respond, or the attorneys plan to file a federal lawsuit on the advocacy group's behalf.

It follows a report the campaign submitted to Haaland last month outlining evidence that some of the horses adopted through the program were discovered at auctions with known "kill buyers" in attendance (Greenwire, May 20).

That report followed a story last month in The New York Times that confirmed some wild horses adopted under BLM's program that pays adopters $1,000 per animal were later sent to auction and possible slaughter (Greenwire, May 17).

Interior and BLM have yet to publicly comment on the slaughter claims raised by the advocacy groups and the Times story.

But since the slaughter claims surfaced last month, Congress has started to pressure Haaland to address the allegations (E&E News PM, June 2).

An Interior spokesperson declined to comment today on the legal petition.

"We cannot sit idly by while the Biden administration remains silent as federally-protected wild horses and burros continue to be funneled to slaughter through a program that is subsidized by our tax dollars," said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, in a statement.

She added, "We would like to avoid litigation but are prepared to take the battle over the BLM's adoption incentive program to federal court if the Interior Department continues to delay action to protect these iconic animals and abide by the Congressional prohibition on wild horse and burro slaughter."

In addition to the slaughter claims, the legal petition also questions whether the Trump administration, which established the adoption incentive program in 2019, followed proper legal protocol in implementing it.

The program offers $1,000 to those who adopt one of the 51,000 wild horses held by the bureau in off-range holding corrals and pastures. Participants receive $500 upfront and an additional $500 per adopted animal a year later, after a follow-up review determines the adopter is properly caring for the horse or horses and title has been transferred to the private party. It has resulted in thousands of wild horses being successfully adopted in the last two years.

But the petition states BLM violated several laws in establishing the program, including failing to provide public notice and comment opportunities as required by the Administrative Procedure Act.

Had BLM done so, "wild horse advocates could have explained that common-sense safeguards could have at least mitigated the disastrous consequences that the [adoption incentive program] has wrought for wild horses, including for example terms restricting the payment of federal funds to any adopter that has previously sold an adopted animal in circumstances that will likely lead to the animal being slaughtered," according to the legal petition.

"However, because BLM unlawfully ignored its obligation to provide the public with any notice or opportunity for comment, the public was deprived of any chance to provide valuable input on this new program," it adds.

The results have led to "extremely bad outcomes for federally protected wild horses that are fundamentally inconsistent with Congress's goals in enacting the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act," the legal petition says.

In short, the petition adds that the adoption incentive program's lack of safeguards for the animals has created "a de facto pipeline that allows wild horses and burros to be sold for slaughter or conversion into commercial products in violation of Congress's explicit and repeated bans on this practice."

Originally posted by E&E News