RENO — Thousands of wild horses captured on Western ranges by the U.S. government and placed in the care of ranchers are winding up in the slaughterhouse, animal protection groups charge.
Protected by the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, these horses are part of the herds rounded up each year by U.S. Bureau of Land Management wranglers in their effort to reduce the number of horses on the ranges in 10 Western states. The act protects the animals on public lands and forbids their commercial exploitation.
The bureau tries to find suitable homes for the animals through its widely advertised "adopt-a-horse" program but has succeeded in placing only about a third of the 38,000 horses captured during the last three years, records show. The unadoptable mustangs wound up in government holding pens.
'Rock and a Hard Place'
"We're between a rock and a hard place on this one," said BLM Director Robert Burford, a Colorado cattleman before joining the Reagan Administration. He said the number of horses on the ranges has doubled since the law was passed. "We can't continue spending $17.8 million a year feeding horses in corrals," he said.
To move more horses out of federal custody, Burford agreed in 1984 to waive the $125-a-head adoption fee for ranchers who were willing to take large numbers of the animals. Since then, records show that 17,200 wild horses have been adopted without fee. Eight thousand have been turned over to ranchers and are awaiting transfer of title.
Burford said the fee-waiver program has helped economically hard-hit cattle ranchers who cannot afford to restock their pastures by giving them horses to "utilize their (privately owned) empty ranges." But animal rights groups call the large-scale adoptions "bogus schemes" and are fighting them in court.
To satisfy the four-horse limit the law sets on all adoptions, the bureau allows a rancher to gather powers of attorney from others who agree to let their names be used in the adoption process. With 25 powers of attorney, the rancher can take 100 Bureau of Land Management horses.
"Obviously this is a way to get around the intent of the law," Dick Stark, a bureau wild horse expert, said. The average fee-waiver adoption involves 200 to 300 head; the largest adoption thus far approved by the bureau was for 2,000 animals.
Ranchers keep the animals a year, then are granted title. Bureau officials are cautious about talking about what happens to the mustangs once title is conveyed. The law does not allow adoption for profit, according to Vern Schulze, a fee-waiver program manager for the bureau. However, he said the bureau's responsibility over the horses ends when the rancher gets title. "What happens . . . (after that) is none of our concern," Schulze said.
Fee-waiver horses are the unadoptable thousands. Older, wilder and, for the most part, the least attractive, these animals are the offspring of domestic horse herds that were turned lose on the ranges half a century or more ago.
"The only useful purpose for these horses is slaughter," said one South Dakota rancher who has adopted hundreds of wild horses. A Montana stock buyer said some of the wildest broncos go to rodeos, but most of the mustangs are sold to meatpackers who pay from $200 to $250 a head. Most of the meat is exported to Europe for human consumption, he said.
Large-Scale Adoptions Denounced
The Animal Protection Institute of Sacramento and the New York-based Fund for Animals denounce the large-scale adoptions and filed suit last year in federal court in Reno in an attempt to prevent turning the horses over the ranchers.
"We want to see the horses protected, as the law requires," said Bob Hillman of the Animal Protection Institute. "They should be left on the range . . . (as) part of the American heritage for all time." Hillman argued that it is the domestic livestock that is overgrazing the public lands and urged that the number of cattle and sheep be reduced to make room for the horses.
The controversy is not without irony, according to Jimmie Lou Eddleman, a Montana rancher's wife. She said that before the 1971 act was passed, the mustangs were rounded up by enterprising cowboys who sold them to meat processors. "Now," she said, "the horses go the same route, only it takes longer . . . and it costs (the taxpayers) more."
Since 1984, the Reagan Administration has spent $71.8 million trying to reduce the herds to manageable size, according to top bureau officials. They estimate that there are 43,000 mustangs competing with 3.2 million head of domestic livestock on public ranges leased by ranchers. That figure is down from an estimated 50,000 wild horses that roamed the ranges in the 1979-1980 period. Burford wants to reduce the mustang total to 31,000--a level he feels will not further damage the ranges.