Source: The Gazette, by Dave Philipps
A Colorado man who repeatedly broke state brand laws by shipping hundreds of federally protected wild horses out of state will not be prosecuted for violating state brand inspection rules because of time limits on prosecution, authorities said this month.
A ProPublica investigation published by The Gazette in September showed Tom Davis of La Jara purchased more than 1,700 wild horses from the Bureau of Land Management from 2008 to 2012 and shipped them to fates unknown. Davis, a proponent of horse slaughter, said he sent the horses to what he called "good homes" all over the country. Wild horse advocates believe they illegally went to slaughter. None of the horses have been accounted for.
In October, the BLM began investigating whether Davis broke federal law by knowingly sending horses to slaughter. That investigation is ongoing. Soon after, Colorado started its investigation of whether Davis violated state brand inspection laws.
Brand laws, which date to the cattle rustling days, are designed to guard against people selling stolen livestock. Colorado law requires a state brand inspection when livestock is sold, moved out of state, or shipped in state more than 75 miles.
Brand records show Davis received more than 1,700 horses from the BLM, but got inspections to ship only 765. None of the horses are in his possession, meaning almost 1,000 were moved without an inspection. Davis admitted as much to ProPublica, saying he did not want brand inspectors to know where the horses were going. When a reporter suggested that was illegal,
Davis replied, "Since when is anything in this country done legal?"
The whereabouts of all 1,700 horses is unknown.
Each violation of the brand law is misdemeanor punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Sheriff's deputies in Conejos County, a rural corner of the San Luis Valley where the Davis family has deep ties, conducted an investigation starting in late April. Deputies found nothing indicating Davis broke the law, said 12th District Attorney David Mahonee in a press release. Mahonee said in the last 18 months, the period allowed by Colorado's statute of limitations for misdemeanors, "There is no evidence that the rancher shipped horses out of Colorado without first having them inspected by the brand inspector and therefore no charges will be filed."
"It's pretty clear he was breaking the law," said Colorado state brand inspector Chris Whitney. "But not within the allowable timeframe." State and federal documents obtained by ProPublica suggest there is evidence Davis broke the law within the specified time. BLM sales receipts show the agency sold Davis at least 239 mustangs in the last 18 months. BLM records show
the animals were shipped to Davis at his house in Colorado, according to the BLM. State brand inspection records during that time show Davis had only 43 animals inspected. That means the rest are either still in his possession or he violated brand inspection laws. Only a half dozen horses were on his property during a visit by a reporter in May 2012
"It's that simple. Either show us the inspections or show us the horses. If you can't, he should be arrested," said Deniz Bolbol, communications director for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a national advocacy organization. "We are disappointed the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye."
The Department of Interior Inspector General's Office took over the BLM investigation of Davis in October. The office did not respond to requests for an update on the investigation, but an unnamed source said its findings could be completed this summer. Meanwhile, wild horse lovers are outraged that the man they say slaughtered truckloads of protected mustangs has yet to be punished.
"The bottom line is that there are 1,700 missing horses," said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign "The sheriff has turned his back. The BLM is dragging its feet. And we still don't know what happened."
Source: Denver Post by Allison Sherry
WASHINGTON — New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday that she is still undecided about how to handle a burgeoning wild horse and burro population that is eating more than half the horse budget at the BLM and sparking outrage among wild horse advocates.
Jewell said in an interview with The Denver Post that she is awaiting a National Academy of Sciences study, slated to come out in early June, to determine how best to handle the horses.
"It's going to help identify what's the sustained capacity of our public lands to handle our wild horses, what is the effectiveness of things like birth control methodology to try and deal with the issue," Jewell said Tuesday. "So we appreciate their help and we look forward to that response."
There are more wild horses and burros roaming federally managed rangelands today than there were in 1971, when Congress passed the landmark Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that protects these iconic animals.There are 11,000 more than the range is supposed to currently sustain and another 51,000 holding in pricey short- and long-term corrals and pastures.
Under former Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator, the Bureau of Land Management's budget to deal with wild horses almost doubled — from $40 million in 2009 to almost $80 million in 2013. That isn't money borrowed from other Interior Department programs, but additional federal funds allocated to hold wild horses to feed and house them, which can cost, per horse, between $1.49 to $4.96 per day.
This increase in spending came despite warnings from the General Accountability Office as early as 2008 that the wild horse program was on an unsustainable path and needed to be addressed. But in the years under Salazar, nothing really changed — except the problem has grown bigger and more expensive. Now the new Secretary is pinning hopes on a National Academy of Sciences report set to come out in early June for guidance.
BLM officials describe the federal government's position with wild horses as a "rock and a hard place." The 1971 law compels them to manage wild horses and burros on public lands and to protect them from abuse and death. But the horses are reproducing at quick speed — the populations can double every four years. And wild horse adoptions are at an all-time low, from 5,701 in 2005 to just over 2,500 last year.
Humanely putting down horses has not been an option since the mid-1980s. Congress doesn't fund programs to kill healthy horses, plus BLM officials do not believe there is a public appetite for sending horses off to slaughter.So federal officials feel like the only option is to pay private ranchers to hold them in pastures — a line item that consumes more than half the federal wild horse budget.
Wild horse advocates from across the country have long been critical of the way the Interior Department handled the wild horse and burro populations. They want more horses in free range than in holding cells and they believe the government should invest more in birth control. With the incoming Secretary, advocates have launched a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill to push for change this year.
"The wild horse program is at a crossroads right now," said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "There are more in captivity than are free in the wild. The holding facilities are full, it's at a crisis point and we're hoping Secretary Jewell will pay attention." At Jewell's confirmation hearing, four senators, two Democrats and two Republicans, questioned the Department's handling of the wild horse program, saying the BLM has consistently failed to live up to its own management goals.
At that March 7 hearing, Jewell said she was "not familiar with the specifics" of the BLM's horse budget and she looked forward to working on "effective and ecologically sustainable policies" for managing the program. The GAO pointed out five years ago that the BLM did not have a consistent way of determining how many horses can be managed on a parcel of land — something horse advocates say is key to solving the problem. "They have set unnaturally low levels, some say there are 50 horses and 900 cows and if there are 56 horses, they'll say the horses are over-populating the range," Roy said. "There are fewer than 32,000 horses on BLM land and that's not very many horses on 26.6 million acres."
Officials say they hope the National Academy of Sciences help determine a better, more consistent, system.
Source: ProPublica, by Dave Philipps
The Bureau of Land Management faced a crisis this spring. The agency protects and manages herds of wild horses that still roam the American West, rounding up thousands of them each year to kee populations stable.
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.”
Other people who find homes for rescue horses in the region say they rely heavily on advertising and web sites to connect with buyers. Davis does not appear to do so.
“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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CHEYENNE, Wyo. - Gov. Matt Mead will oppose a lawsuit filed by environmental groups trying to block the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from proceeding with a plan to round up and castrate hundreds of wild stallions in the southwestern part of the state, his office said Thursday.
Steve Ferrell, policy adviser to Mead, said the state intends to enter the lawsuit to argue that the roundup should proceed to stop the wild horses from hurting rangelands.
The BLM plans to use helicopters to gather nearly 900 wild horses from the White Mountain/Little Colorado herd management areas between Rock Springs and La Barge starting next month. The agency plans to castrate all the stallions it captures and release 177 of them back to the range.
The BLM estimates roughly 1,000 horses are in the area but says there should be no more than 400. Officials say they expect to capture 90 percent of the horses on the 60-mile wide area.
The Western Watersheds Project and American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and others filed the lawsuit in Washington, D.C., this week against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and BLM officials. The groups argue the roundup would violate federal law.
An agency spokeswoman has declined comment on the lawsuit.
"Overabundance of wild horses has impacts on the range," Ferrell said. "That creates impacts on rangeland use by livestock and habitat use by wildlife. And so these two particular herd management areas are over the appropriate level as defined by BLM now. We'd like to see these two gathers implemented so they can get back into the prescribed population level."
The state and the BLM entered an agreement in 2003 requiring the federal agency not to allow wild horse populations to exceed what the federal agency determines are appropriate levels. Mead, a rancher, earlier this week said overpopulation of wild horses must not be allowed to hurt rangelands.
"What I am seeking on our public lands is a balance," Mead had said. "Right now, with the number of wild horses on the range, there is an imbalance. We have a consent decree with the BLM on wild horse management, and we expect the BLM to abide by that decree."
Jon Marvel of Hailey, Idaho, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, said his group filed the lawsuit to try to counterbalance what it sees as the traditional behavior of the BLM and western politicians who believe the only legitimate uses of public lands are to support ranching and energy development.
"One of the great ironies of the American West is that politicians like Gov. Mead tend to intervene on the side of public lands ranchers and against wildlife and wildlife habitat, and the interests of the majority of the citizens of Wyoming and the United States," Marvel said.
Suzanne Roy, campaign director with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, said she expects attorneys on Friday will ask a federal judge in Washington for a court order blocking the roundup. She said a hearing on the request could come as soon as next week.
"Even though Wyoming advertises its wild horses as a reason for people to come and visit, it's no surprise that the state is actively supporting efforts to get the wild horses off of public land," Roy said. "Like the BLM policy, the state's policy is driven by livestock interests. And it comes at the expense of our wild horses and a lot of other wild animals as well."
Source: Billings Gazette / Associated Press