Interior secretary faces questions over wild horses program

Greg Campbell Contributor
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While outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar may be ready to hang up his boots, a bipartisan group of congressmen and a national coalition of wild horse advocates aren’t ready to let him ride off into the sunset just yet.

They want answers as to why the Wild Horse and Burro Program run by the Bureau of Land Management — which is meant to protect wild herds living on public land — has doubled in cost since 2009 and, for the first time in the program’s history, also resulted in more “wild” horses living in taxpayer-funded holding corrals than exist on the free range.

BLM’s answer to overpopulation has been to thin herds and stockpile an increasing number of horses, costing taxpayers more than $108,000 a day just to feed them, according to American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC).

They also note that the overall cost of the program has nearly doubled under Salazar’s tenure, from $40.6 million in 2009 to $78 million this fiscal year.

In November, AWHPC submitted a petition to the Interior Department signed by more than 25,000 people, demanding that Salazar answer questions about how the program has been managed. Salazar, who has become notorious for dodging questions about the program — he once threatened to punch a reporter who surprised him with questions during an Obama campaign stop in Colorado Springs — hasn’t replied to the petition.

Now Congress is also looking for answers. Twenty-one congressmen from both parties sent a letter to Salazar last week, echoing the concerns of wild horse advocates and asking the Department of Interior to “respond to the groups and citizens who have contacted you” as “a show of goodwill.”

Salazar hasn’t yet responded to that letter either.

The Wild Horse and Burro Program has long been plagued with allegations of mismanagement, including claims that horses are abused during roundups. In Nevada, a roundup in November and December resulted in five dead horses, injuries caused by panicked horses crashing into fences and allegations that ranchers used electroshock to load them onto trailers.

Animal rights advocates sought an injunction against further roundups in Nevada; they were allowed to proceed, but a federal judge forbade BLM from driving horses into barbed-wire fences using helicopters and banned the use of electric prods.

About 70 percent of the program’s budget is dedicated to rounding up and stockpiling horses, according to AWHPC. Only about 4 percent of the budget goes toward on-range population control measures, like birth control.

Historically, the BLM has tried to adopt horses taken from the wild, but the pace of the roundups exceeds the rate at which private owners adopt them. Activists believe BLM cheaply sold about 1,700 horses since 2009 to a Colorado rancher who may have sent them to Mexico to be slaughtered. The rancher, Tom Davis, lives near the Salazar family ranch and told reporters he’d done business with the Salazars in the past, which Salazar has denied.

DOI’s Inspector General is investigating BLM’s sales to Davis.

Horse activists hope that Congress will grill Salazar’s potential replacement, REI chief Sally Jewell, on how she will reform the faltering program.

“We can’t go on like this,” said AWHPC director Suzanne Roy in a statement. “This ineffective program is not only wasting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, but also is running the risk of eliminating wild horses from America’s public lands for good.”

Salazar’s office did not respond to an email asking if he plans to address the concerns.

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