But by March, government pens and pastures were nearly full. Efforts to find new storage space had fallen flat. So had most attempts to persuade members of the public to adopt horses. Without a way to relieve the pressure, the agency faced a gridlock that would invite lawsuits and potentially cause long-term damage to the range.
So the BLM did something it has done increasingly over the last few years. It turned to a little-known Colorado livestock hauler named Tom Davis who was willing to buy hundreds of horses at a time, sight unseen, for $10 a head.
The BLM has sold Davis at least 1,700 wild horses and burros since 2009, agency records show -- 70 percent of the animals purchased through its sale program. Like all buyers, Davis signs contracts promising that animals bought from the program will not be slaughtered and insists he finds them good homes.
But Davis is a longtime advocate of horse slaughter. By his own account, he has ducked Colorado law to move animals across state lines and will not say where they end up. He continues to buy wild horses for slaughter from Indian reservations, which are not protected by the same laws. And since 2010, he has been seeking investors for a slaughterhouse of his own.
"Hell, some of the finest meat you will ever eat is a fat yearling colt," he said. "What is wrong with taking all those BLM horses they got all fat and shiny and setting up a kill plant?"
Animal welfare advocates fear that horses bought by Davis are being sent to the killing floor. “The BLM says it protects wild horses,” said Laura Leigh, founder of the Nevada-based advocacy group Wild Horse Education, “but when they are selling to a guy like this you have to wonder.” BLM officials say they carefully screen buyers and are adamant that no wild horses ever go to slaughter.
“We don’t feel compelled to sell to anybody we don’t feel good about,” agency spokesman Tom Gorey said. “We want the horses to be protected. ”Sally Spencer, who runs the wild horse sales program, said the agency has had no indication of problems with Davis and it would be unfair for the BLM to look more closely at him based on the volume of his purchases.
"It is no good to just stir up rumors,” she said. “We have never heard of him not being able to find homes. So people are innocent until proven guilty in the United States. Some BLM employees say privately that wild horse program officials may not want to look too closely at Davis. The agency has more wild horses than it knows what to do with, they say, and Davis has become a relief valve for a federal program plagued by conflict and cost over-runs.
"They are under a lot of pressure in Washington to make numbers,” said a BLM corral manager who did not want his name used because he feared retribution from the agency’s national office. “Maybe that is what this is about. They probably don't want to look too careful at this guy."
So what happened to the wild horses Davis purchased from the BLM? The agency can’t say for sure. It does not hold onto the titles of wild horses acquired through its sale program as it does with horses that are adopted. Officials also have no process for following up to make sure buyers use animals as they claim they will in applications.
In the interview at the ranch, Davis said he had found most of the mustangs “good homes” on properties mostly in the southeastern states. Asked if he would provide records of these sales, he responded, “Ain’t no way in hell.”
“I’ve never heard of him,” said David Hesse, who runs Mustang and Wild Horse Rescue of Georgia. “If he said he is finding homes for that many old, untamed mustangs, I’m skeptical. The market is deader than dead. I have trouble finding homes for even the ones that are saddle-broken. Wild ones? No way.”
On some sales applications, Davis has said he sells horses to graze on land used for oil and gas drilling in Texas, but oil industry experts contacted for this story said they had never heard of such a practice.
According to brand inspection documents required by Colorado when livestock is sold or shipped more than 75 miles, Davis and his wife say they have sent 765 animals with BLM wild horse brands to a sparsely populated stretch of arid brush country along the Mexico border in Kinney County, Texas. (The records do not give specific addresses where animals were sent, but identify small towns, such as Spofford, as their destination.)
It’s impossible to confirm that the horses actually arrived there or to know where they might have gone next, however, because Texas is one of the few Western states that do not require brand inspections when horses are moved or sold. Just south of Kinney County is Eagle Pass, a border town that isthe only crossing for horses going to slaughter in Mexico for hundreds of miles.
There have been no horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. since 2007, when Congress barred funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture horse meat inspectors. Since then horse slaughter has been outsourced. A 2011 report by the General Accountability Office found the export of horses for slaughter to Mexico shot up 660 percent after the ban.
In Eagle Pass, as at other crossings, slaughter horses are checked by USDA veterinarians. A USDA spokeswoman refused to make veterinarians available for interviews, but confirmed that vets sometimes see wild horses bearing the BLM brand in slaughter export pens. Brand documents leave almost 1,000 of Davis’s wild horses unaccounted for. That means they should still be within 75 miles of his residence -- if he has complied with state law.
Asked if this was the case, Davis first said the horses were still on 160 acres of land he leases from the state of Colorado. Then he said some had been shipped out of state without brand inspections, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"Since when is anything in this country done legal?" Davis said in a phone interview.
Had BLM officials inquired further about Davis, they might have found reason to question his plans for wild horses.Davis is a vocal proponent of slaughtering wild horses in the holding system, which he considers a waste of resources. During the interview at his home, he said he would purchase far more horses if the BLM allowed him to resell them to so-called “kill buyers.”
“They are selling me mere hundreds now,” he said. “If they sold me 50,000, I guarantee I could do something with them. I would go to Canada. I would go to Mexico.” Davis has close friends who export horses for slaughter, including Dennis
Chavez, whose family runs one of largest export businesses in the southwest. In 1984, when Davis authored “Be Tough or be Gone", a self-published book about a horseback ride he took from Mexico to Alaska, he dedicated it to Chavez’s father, Sonny Chavez.
Also, despite the obstacles that impede U.S. horse slaughterhouses, Davis said he has been trying to drum up investors to open a slaughter plant in Colorado. He said he had approached pet food companies to buy the meat and asked Ken
Salazar’s brother, John Salazar, who is the head of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, to help him get a grant to finance the business. John Salazar declined to help Davis, and so far the slaughterhouse venture has not gone forward.
“How can the BLM say with a straight face they are protecting wild horses when they deal with this guy?” said Leigh, of Wild Horse Education. Animal welfare advocates have raised concerns about Davis’ purchases, but they say federal officials paid little attention.
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