Jan. 31, 2001 -- While coyote hunting in the open federal lands of central Wyoming, Chuck Reed recently made an ugly discovery.
The officer for the Rawlins, Wyo., division of the Bureau of Land Management spotted a mound of brown against the white snow. As he drew nearer, he realized he was looking at the corpses of three recently shot wild horses.
Reed says it's not uncommon to find single corpses of horses that have been sickly and then shot out of mercy. But as he inspected the two young mares and one stallion, he concluded they could not have been killed with any good intention.
"The animals were fat and healthy," recalls Reed. "There was no point in looking for a noble motive. It was obvious they'd been murdered."
Graceful and Contested
Reed's discovery raised the total number of wild horse killings in Wyoming to 37 since December. And while the spate of killings has inspired outrage and disgust among all kinds of groups, it also highlights a continuing source of tension between animal-rights activists and ranchers: how to manage the estimated 49,000 wild horses that roam free in Western states.
Horses originally rambled across North America more than a million years ago during the Pleistocene era before reaching extinction. Spanish explorers reintroduced the animals to the continent in the late 15th century and Indians helped spread them throughout the West.
To people like Andrea Alococo, director of Wyoming's Fund For Animals, ranchers and the government should do everything possible to allow these graceful animals to run free and wild. To ranchers like Leonard Hay, president of Wyoming's Rock Springs Grazing Association, the horses nibble the grasses that are vital to livestock, and need to be controlled.
"We like wild horses and it's wrong to be shooting them," says Hay. "But if these horses aren't kept in low enough numbers, soon there won't be anything left but wild horses on this land."
Both Alococo's group and Hay's association have offered up thousands of dollars to fund a $30,000 reward for the shooters responsible for the killings. Such an alliance between the two groups is rare, but the groups are also unwittingly allied in one more way — both think current government management of wild horse populations does not work.
"The program has produced one problem after another," says Alococo about the Bureau of Land Management's wild horse management program.
Managed to Extinction?
In compliance with the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, the BLM manages flourishing wild horse populations by keeping tabs on their numbers and regularly gathering hundreds of wild horses using helicopters, fences and wranglers. The horses are taken to temporary holding pens, where they're fattened up with rich grains and then sold for adoption.
Environmental groups say the bureau collects too many horses from the wild each year. This year the bureau hopes to round up 13,000 horses and over the next five years the plan is to reduce populations from about 49,000 to 27,000.
"Our purpose is to balance the use of the land for many animals," says Mary Knapp, of BLM's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The wild horses share the land with livestock and other wildlife."
Knapp adds that unchecked horse populations can dwindle and starve to death during dry summers and long winters. But Alococo believes the bureau is pandering to the demands of ranchers and taking too many horses from the wild, which will then reduce gene pools to dangerously thin levels.
"They're going to manage wild horses into extinction," says Alococo.
Alococo's group also finds big problems within the BLM's mustang adoption program. The Animal Fund recently sued the bureau for failing to protect more than 575 adopted horses from slaughter last year despite a 1997 court settlement requiring the BLM to enforce tougher oversight of the adoption process.
Under the 1997 court agreement, people may adopt wild horses at BLM auctions at a minimal fee of $125 if they sign an affidavit saying they do not intend to use the horses for commercial purposes. After a one-year probation, the adopter takes title of the horse if the BLM is satisfied the animal is well cared for.
Alococo points out that too often, adopters either slaughter their adopted horses before or just after gaining titles to them. BLM officials say they work with slaughter houses to try and ensure no untitled horses are processed. But they argue there is little the bureau can do once the horses become private property.
"Things happen and it takes a really big hole to bury a horse," says Marry Apple, of the bureau's Rawlins, Wyo., office. "If a new owner sells the horse for slaughter, they can recoup their cost. We're against the idea, but at that point it's their horse and their right."
Ellen Elford of Buckeye, Ariz., would never think of sending her 4-year-old adopted paint horse, Reno, to slaughter. Elford paid more than $150 for Reno at a BLM auction in Buckeye two years ago and now she has neutered and tamed him enough to ride. But, Elford points out, not all the horses at BLM auctions make tempting purchases.
At a BLM auction last December, Elford recalls seeing a pen full of mares that ranged in age from 3 to 5 years. One of them, she believes, never found an owner.
"The one that wasn't adopted was so skinny and malnourished, she just needed to be put in a can of dogfood," says Elford.
Hay, of the grazing association, agrees that sometimes slaughter is the most practical solution. "Our cattle and sheep go to slaughter," says Hay. "Why not those horses that aren't adopted?"
Instead, unadopted horses are sent to horse sanctuaries in Oklahoma and Kansas at a government cost of $1.60 per horse per day. The BLM hopes to increase its yearly adoptions from about 7,000 to 10,000, and is implementing some programs to improve adoption success, including mentoring and training demonstrations at horse auctions.
But some believe the government alone can't manage the horses.
"When it comes to marketing, federal agencies are not effective," says Dick Loper, a federal lands consultant based in Wyoming. "I'd like to see a federal-private partnership get together and figure out new ways to manage the horses."
In the meantime, one solution that all sides say they oppose is simply going out and shooting the animals. Apple reports the bureau is keeping mum about the ongoing investigation to find the shooters. Hay suspects the $30,000 reward will reveal the perpetrators soon enough.
"They'll have a couple beers and will pop off to someone about what they did," he says. "And that reward is big enough for someone to tattle."