By Scott Streater, E&E News
June 30, 2021
The Bureau of Land Management acknowledged for the first time today that it is conducting an internal investigation into allegations that some wild horses and burros adopted into private care through a popular program have ended up at auctions for slaughter.
Nada Culver, BLM's deputy director of policy and programs, told the members of the bureau's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board during an online hearing that BLM is working to identify specific instances, if any, where an animal in its pay-to-adopt program was later sold at auction and ended up slaughtered.
"We are aware of the concerns of many in the public about the welfare of adopted wild horses and burros," said Culver, who is currently leading the bureau. "And I wanted to tell you all that the BLM takes these allegations, and any allegations of violations of the law and regulations governing the placement of federally protected wild horses and burros into private care, very seriously."
BLM is also working to put extra measures in place "that we think will benefit adopted animals, and reflect our goal to place animals into good homes," she said, but did not offer any details.
"We look forward to sharing those with you in the future," she said.
Culver's statement is the first time BLM or the Interior Department has discussed in any detail the allegations by the American Wild Horse Campaign and a coalition of several other advocacy groups. The groups say that records show wild horses adopted out by BLM were later sold at auctions with slaughterhouse buyers (Greenwire, May 20).
The New York Times, in a story last month, reported that potentially "truckloads" of wild horses and burros that had been adopted were later being shipped to these auctions.
Culver's acknowledgement to the advisory board comes as BLM is under growing pressure to address these allegations.
Attorneys for the American Wild Horse Campaign sent a formal legal petition to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Culver 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 (Greenwire, June 10).
That petition directed Interior and BLM to 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. It also says BLM should "engage in formal notice-and-comment rulemaking" for a new adoption program that complies with federal law.
Culver did not discuss the status of the program pending that investigation.
The legal petition gave BLM until today to address the issue.
A spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Campaign said that BLM submitted a very general answer to the petition and that the group has asked the bureau for more details.
The adoption incentive 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.
But BLM in its response to the attorneys for American Wild Horse Campaign conceded that after title is transferred to the adopter, "BLM does not have the means or legal authority to track or direct the disposition of wild horses or burros once they pass into private ownership."
In addition to the legal petition, the group earlier presented Haaland with a report outlining the results of an investigation in which it and three other horse advocacy groups documented that at least 79 wild horses and one burro removed from federal rangelands by BLM ended up at the auctions in the past year (Greenwire, May 20).
Of those 80 animals, the groups have documented that at least 18 were adopted through the adoption incentive program.
Barry Perryman, a member of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, asked Culver whether BLM had received any specific information regarding whether adopted wild horses and burros are "slipping into slaughter channels."
"Has any individual, or any entity, provided any information to the bureau law enforcement so that they can investigate any of these claims that have been put forward?" Perryman asked. "If these claims are real, if this is really happening, we need to know about it."
Culver responded: "We, like you, certainly saw the press coverage. We do have a lot of safeguards in place to try to prevent this from happening. It's certainly not something we're allowed to do legally to have horses sent to slaughter. We are investigating this situation. I can't speak to every single piece of information we've received. Certainly, we would welcome more information."
David Jenkins, BLM's assistant director of resources and planning, said the bureau has received "specific information" on the slaughter claims "from various advocacy groups."
"But a lot of that information we need to vet and investigate," Jenkins said.
Neither Jenkins nor Culver indicated when the internal investigation would be completed. Culver told the board members that they are "working on several approaches that we think will help adopted animals" that they plan to "share in the future."
In the meantime, BLM's estimate in March 2020 found that there about 95,000 wild horses and burros on federal rangelands, which is nearly four times the number that rangelands can sustain without damaging vegetation and soils. The extreme drought situation plaguing the West is only making matters worse.
President Biden's proposed fiscal 2022 budget requested an increase in funding for the Wild Horse and Burro Program — to $152 million from $115 million.
A House Interior-EPA Appropriations bill proposes to raise funding for the program to $162 million.
BLM plans to round up and remove about 11,000 wild horses and burros from federal rangelands during this fiscal budget cycle, and plans to ramp that up in fiscal 2022 to about 20,000 animals. The plan is to also incorporate increased use of fertility controls on mares.
"Our overarching goal is always to manage and protect healthy wild horses and burros on a healthy public rangeland. And to do that through a combination of management actions to achieve a balance and sustainable herd sizes," Culver said. "By balancing herd size with resources available to these animals, we're protecting them and their health and giving them a better chance to thrive on public land."