VA Adoption and Sales Event Another Example of BLM’s Mismanagement of Wild Horses

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Mary Koncel, AWHC Program Specialist

(November 14, 2019) The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held but then aborted a recent adoption and sales event in Lorton, VA that resulted in horses being subjected to dangerous storms, the death of one horse, and multiple horses receiving a strike toward becoming eligible for sale authority.

According to the BLM, 61 horses were shipped from its off-range corral in Ewing, IL to Lorton, VA for the event on Friday and Saturday, November 1st and 2nd.   After arriving on Thursday, October 31st at the BLM’s Meadowoods Special Recreation Management Area, the horses were unloaded and sorted into the pens located in an open field with no access to shelter.

That day the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for the entire Washington D.C. area until midnight and warned of high winds and heavy rains in Fairfax County, which includes Lorton, VA.

The BLM’s own Adoption Site Selection Criteria states that “Because of the extreme weather variability within our jurisdiction, in most cases we require a covered arena with a minimum area of 100 feet by 200 feet.”   But apparently, the BLM’s own Meadowoods Special Recreation Management Area is not one of those cases, and the result jeopardized the horses and wasted taxpayers’ money that paid for the event.

An AWHC staff member was onsite Friday morning and found the horses standing in deep mud.  During the first hours of the event, she observed BLM staff struggling to load horses into the chute and onto  trailers because both they and the flags they were using to move the horses were covered in mud.  Additionally, poor footing in a round pen where a trainer in the Trainer Incentive Program was giving a gentling demonstration caused the horse to slip and slam into the panels.  Hay was inedible as it was ground into the mud.

On Friday night, the BLM announced on a Facebook post that it was cancelling the adoption and sale on Saturday due to “excessive rain and mud,” and, as Krystal Johnson, Wild Horse and Burro Specialist/State Program Lead Eastern States Office, explained in a November 5th email, for the safety of the horses and staff.

AWHC learned that a one gelding who fractured his leg – reportedly while he was being loaded back onto the trailer – was euthanized.  While deaths at BLM roundups and removals are common, it’s rare that they occur at adoption and sale events.  

Thirty-two horses were placed via adoption or sales, but the remaining horses who were not adopted received one strike even though the second day of the event was cancelled.  Horses who receive three strikes – meaning they are passed over three times for adoption – become eligible for sale authority.   

When AWHC inquired why the horses were unloaded in such severe weather, Ms. Johnson explained in a November 12th email that the horses “needed to rest before being transported back to the corral,” adding, “We take the animal's care and welfare very seriously and made the best decision based on the conditions on the ground; the weather is definitely unpredictable and affects our operations throughout the program.” 

Another reason why the BLM didn’t cancel the entire event might have to do the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Meeting that was held in Washington D.C. prior to it.  Members of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board were invited to Lorton after concluding a three-day meeting.  About six of them attended the event.

Ironically, throughout the Advisory Board meeting, members pushed for accelerated adoptions and sales of wild horses and burros, claiming that placement was a safe and humane management tool.

While Ms. Johnson stated that the BLM has “received additional funding to build a cover at Lorton,” it’s a little too late for the horse who died and the others who had to endure the poor conditions during the event as well as the stress of being loaded and transported half way across the country with no chance of being adopted.