Reno, Nevada--A multimillion-dollar federal program created to save the
lives of wild horses is instead channeling them by the thousands to
slaughterhouses, where they are chopped into cuts of meat. Among those
who might be profiting from the slaughter are employees of the Bureau of
Land Management (BLM), the agency that administers the program. These are
the conclusions of an Associated Press investigation of the U. S. Wild
Horse and Burro Program, which has rounded up 165,000 animals and spent
$250 million since it was created by Congress 25 years ago.
The program was intended to protect and manage wild horses on public
lands, where they compete for resources with grazing cattle. The idea:
Gather up excess horses and offer them to the public for adoption.
Nothing in the law prevents anyone, however, from selling horses to
slaughterhouses once they gain ownership. While it is common for old or
lame horses to go to slaughter, nearly all former BLM horses sent to
slaughter are young and healthy, according to slaughterhouses.
The program’s rules let anyone adopt up to four horses per year, paying
$125 for each healthy animal. If the adopters properly care for the horses
for one year, they get title to them in the form of BLM certificates
bearing a number freeze-branded into each horses hide. Using freeze-brand
numbers and computer records, the AP traced more than 57 former BLM horses
sold to the slaughterhouses since September. Eighty percent of them were
less than 10 years old and 25% were less than 5 years old. Horses are
often ridden well into their twenties. At the Cavel West Slaughterhouse
in Redmond, Ore., for example, the proprietor, Pascal Derde, displayed a
sheaf of BLM certificates for horses he recently butchered and sent to
Belgium for human consumption. Asked about the AP’s findings, Tom Pogacnik, director of the BLM’s $16-million-a-year Wild Horse and Burro
Program, conceded that about 90% of the horses rounded up go to
slaughter. Has a program intended to save wild horses, as a symbol of the
American frontier, evolved into a supply system for horse meat? "I
guess that’s one way of looking at it," Pogacnik said. "Recognizing
that we can’t leave them out there, well, at some point critters do have
to come off the range."
Clifford Hansen, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming who introduced the
bill to create the program, said he now wishes he could remove his name
from the legislation. "The law was intended to recognize the
significance of wild horses and burros," said Hansen, now 84, "but
talk about a waste of public funds!"
The government spends up to $1,100 to round up, vaccinate, freeze brand
and adopt out a horse. Although adopters pay $125 for each healthy horse,
a lame or old horse can be bought for as little as $25, or even acquired
free. After holding the horses for a year, adopters are free to sell them
for slaughter, typically receiving $700 per animal from the
slaughterhouse. The sellers find no shortage of horsemeat buyers. The
demand for American horsemeat has long been strong in Asia and Europe.
Government officials offered conflicting opinions on whether it is legal
or ethical for BLM officials to adopt and sell wild horses.
The AP matched computer records of horse adoptions with a computerized
list of federal employees and found that more than 200 current BLM
employees have adopted more than 600 wild horses and burros. Some of
these employees, when contacted, could not account for their animals.
Others acknowledge that some of their horses were sent to slaughterhouses.
In Rock Springs, Wyoming, the BLM corrals are run by Victor McDarment,
whose crew rounds up horses from open ranges in Wyoming and arranges
adoptions. According to BLM database records, McDarment has adopted 16
horses. His estranged wife adopted nine. His children adopted at least
six. His girlfriend adopted four. His ex-wife adopted one. His co-workers
in the corrals and their families adopted 54. McDarment said he could not
account for the whereabouts of all the horses. "I don’t keep track,"
he said. Some ended up with Dennis Gifford, a Lovell, Wyoming, rancher
and rodeo contractor who said he has tried to breed them for rodeo stock.
He said he is sure some of McDarment’s horses were slaughtered. They have
to end up somewhere, Gifford said.
Federal law prohibits U.S. government employees from using public office
for private gain. The U.S. Office of Government Ethics said this means BLM
workers are not allowed to profit from BLM programs. But Gabriel Paone,
the Interior Departments ethics official in Washington, said there is
nothing wrong with BLM employees adopting wild horses and then selling
them for profit. "They’re not doing this as public officials."
Paone said. "They’re doing this as private citizens."
The federal government is conducting several reviews of the Wild Horse and
Burro Program, with two audits and two reports to Congress expected to be
completed in 1997. "I welcome the scrutiny," Pogacnik said. "It
can only help."
Roundup is Beginning of End for Herds.
By Martha Mendoza
You see them first.
A flowing line of horses gallops over the ridge. Behind them comes the
helicopter, swooping down to 5 feet above the ground, banking side to side
to keep the Three Fingers herd in a group.
This is the beginning of the end for these wild horses. Although they are
federally protected---deemed "living symbols of the American West" by
Congress 25 years ago---most are destined for restaurants in Europe and
We hear them coming. Whinnies and clattering hooves. Snorts and grunts.
The helicopter roaring behind them. Hidden are about a dozen wranglers,
paid about $300 for each horse they catch, and the BLM staffers, paid to
observe. The herd nears the "Judas horse," the one trained to lead
them into captivity. Prompted by a slap, the Judas horse bolts into the
open gates of a trap, and the herd follows. A hidden wrangler pulls a
latch and the gate slams shut.
Stretched resources in the wilds led to the BLM’s 25-year-old program to
capture the wild animals and put them up for adoption. By limiting herd
sizes, the program aims to prevent starvation and further an ecological
The Three Fingers herd ends up at the Palomino Valley Adoption and
Placement Center in Reno, Nevada. Separated by sex and age, the animals
will live here at least 30 days. Stallions are gelded, treated for worms
and vaccinated. They all receive freeze-brands on their necks. Horses can
be adopted at placement centers or at regional centers. Eventually, many
end up at livestock auctions. Shane Christian works the Wyoming
auctions. He’s known as a "killer buyer," meaning he buys for the
slaughterhouses. He also buys BLM horses--"more than I’d like to,"
"La viande de cheval, les fines bouches, n’en font qu’une bouchee,"
("Horse meat, the finest cuts, you can’t have just one bite,") reads a
poster at the Cavel West slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore. It depicts a
juicy hunk of horsemeat on a fork heading toward a woman lips. The killer
buyers arrive at Cavel West regularly with loads of horses packed in
trailers. After being weighed, the horses are moved into a muddy pens
where they will spend hours, and, in some cases, weeks. The ramp is
narrow and steep. Inside the horse is shot in the forehead with a special
gun (only stuns the horse and does not kill the horse), then it is
bled by workers wearing white coveralls and rubber boots. Horses
carcasses are rolled into the boning room, where about 10 workers cut them
into packageable chunks. The dark red meat is sealed in plastic bags,
trucked to Chicago and flown to Europe. Pascal Derde, a Belgian
veterinarian who manages the place, says objections in the United States
to slaughtering horses are simply "a cultural difference." And, he
says, there is nothing else to do with the horses.