By Dylan Woolf Harris, Elko Daily Free Press
ELKO — “Horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene,” Congress wrote in 1971 in a landmark bill designed to protect the animals. Today, the Bureau of Land Management — the agency tasked with wild horse management — has nearly run out of space for them.
In northeastern Nevada, organizers worried one week ago that overnight snowfall would lead to a meager turnout and an unsuccessful adoption. The foals, between the ages of 6 and 11 months old, were rounded up on the Diamond Complex — an area of public land in the Elko, Battle Mountain and Ely districts — and held in corrals about a mile outside of Eureka where the adoption took place.
In light of the snowy roads, the draw was better than expected.
“Surprisingly, it went very well,” said Shawna Richardson, BLM Battle Mountain District wild horse specialist. “We were impressed with the turnout. ... It’s a testament to those people.”
Nineteen horses were available for adoption Feb. 9. Before the event began, hopeful buyers perused the horses, reading information sheets near each pen.
“There were so many people walking around looking at the yearlings and sitting doing paperwork that we could not get an accurate count,” BLM Battle Mountain District public affairs officers wrote in an email.
A few of the horses attracted interest from more than one buyer, so organizers administered an informal lottery, sticking cards in a container with the drawn name given the first option to purchase the horse for $150. Two additional horses were purchased, for a total of 12 adoptions.
“I know that we’ve got folks out there in rural Nevada interested in adopting these horses for ranch work and recreation,” Richardson said. “For us to be able to bring horses close to them, it allows them to cut through some of the red tape and it allows them to see what horses are available without traveling very far.”
Even with the turnout, though, seven horses were not adopted. They were shipped to Palomino Valley, a BLM horse preparation facility north of Reno, and will be available for a future adoption. Harvey suspected about five more horses would have been adopted if not for the snow.
“Ideally we would like to adopt them all out,” said BLM Elko District spokeswoman Leslie Ellis-Wouters.
How it works
The BLM’s wild horse and burro management method is simple: Round up excess horses in areas of overpopulation, and adopt them off to public buyers. Buyers receive the horse’s title following an official inspection conducted one year after purchase, to ensure the animal is properly cared for.
“But we know they’re not all going to get adopted out,” she added.
Not only are some horses not adopted, but the numbers have been in decline, according to National BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program spokesperson Tom Gorey.
Unadoptable horses — typically older than 6 and passed over three times at prior adoptions — are sent to long-term holding facilities located primarily in Oklahoma and Kansas.
“The ones that go to the pastures in the Midwest, they live out their lives there. They’re very comfortable, spacious pastures. They have nice grass and don’t have to work as hard for a living,” Gorey said.
But space has limits and the number of horses in long-term pastures, which has ballooned past the number of horses on the range, is leading to an inexorable capacity crunch.
“We’re reaching a critical mass in terms of what we do going forward because we cannot gather horses that we can’t take care of,” he said. “At the same time we don’t want to see horses that are in need, due to drought or others factors. We don’t want to see them suffer from malnutrition.”
More than 49,000 wild horses live in long-term holding with an estimated capacity of about 52,500. Each gather nudges the total closer to the holding ceiling.
All total, 792 horses were gathered from the Diamond Complex between Jan. 18 and Feb. 6. Two horses were euthanized due to preexisting conditions, Richardson said. One had an infected cut that had spread to its organs and the other was severely emaciated.
A majority of the gathered horses, 778, were shipped to Palomino Valley for adoption preparation, where horses received shots, a freeze-branded marking and other care.
The number of horses gathered from the Diamond Complex is more than three times the determined appropriate management level for the area, at 210. An estimated 161 horses remained there after the gather with another 30 sentenced to Northern Nevada Correctional Center’s holding facility with the possibility of returning to the range in the future.
Horse populations in the wild only compound the holding dilemma.
“We have an overpopulation problem,” Gorey said. “By our calculation, which is determined by our field offices, we have a free-roaming population of 37,000 right now and the appropriate management level is 26,500.”
In Nevada — the state with the largest wild horse population— the horse and burro numbers closed in on 20,000 in fiscal year 2012, according to the BLM’s website. The state’s appropriate management level is deemed 12,778.
Room and board
Soliciting more ranchers to house wild horses on their property hasn’t garnered much of a response, according to Gorey, because horse storage isn’t as lucrative to the ranchers as cattle. Holding costs, though, are a significant portion of the wild horse and burro program’s budget.
“We pay between $1.30 and $1.40 per horse per day, which is about $475 per year, per horse,” Gorey said. “Our budget is about $75 million and 60 percent goes to holding.”
“As far as a quick fix, there is none,” he added.
In 2004, looking for a quick fix, Congress passed an amendment to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, directing the agency “to sell excess horses and burros ‘without limitations to any willing buyer,’” the BLM website states. This is a separate program than the BLM’s adoption program.
Since 2005, about 5,400 horses have been sold, many to one man: Tom Davis of Colorado.
“He is a livestock buyer who buys domestic horses at auctions and sells them to slaughterhouses, that much is known,” said Suzanne Roy, American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign Director.
ProPublica broke the news that Davis bought 1,700 wild horses. The story raised questions as to whether these horses were sent to slaughterhouses.
Purchases were made at various BLM sites, including a purchase at Palomino Valley of 67 animals at $10 a head in March 2010, according to BLM records.
An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior is ongoing related to these sales, Gorey said.
The Inspector General’s office did not return calls for comment. Davis was unable to be reached.
The allegations ignited outrage from many horse advocates and the BLM changed its sales policy Jan. 3. Under the new rules, no more than four horses or burros can be purchased by one person in a six-month period, buyers must describe where the animals will be kept for the first six months, and transportation trailers are to be inspected.
If a capacity solution is found, it could be offered from someone outside the agency.
Before a wild horse gather, local districts collect comments from the public that are included in an environmental assessment.
“‘Wild horses should be controlled by natural means,’” Bruce Thompson, Elko District BLM wild horse specialist, read from a binder regarding the Owyhee Complex gather.
The gather finished around the same time the Diamond Complex gather began. A judge had temporarily ordered the gather to cease after horse advocates worried the animals were hurt with shock sticks.
“Opposed to the gather. ... It’s a waste of taxpayer money,” another commenter said.
A Feb. 13 letter signed by 21 members of Congress was sent to Secretary of the Department of the Interior Ken Salazar asking to “modernize the wild horse and burro program.
“It must also develop a long-term strategy that reflects balanced interests of America’s wild horses and burros and the unique legacy of our public lands,” the letter said.