After enduring a firestorm of criticism about its controversial adopt-a-horse program, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is now fighting back.
During the past year, wild horse advocates and former BLM employees have accused the organization of allowing many of the horses to be sold to slaughterhouses for a profit, and have demanded congressional hearings and a moratorium on wild horse roundups and adoptions.
While BLM program administrators insist the reports are "grossly exaggerated," they have introduced a host of policy changes to diminish the controversy.
"Any federal program can be improved at any time. We are saying we want to do better," says Bob Johns, a BLM spokesman.
Since 1973, the BLM has gathered nearly 10,000 mustangs each year from 10 Western states and offered them to the public for $125 each. Under the program, which aims to balance wild horse populations with available forage and water, adopters wait one year before obtaining legal title. During that time, adopted horses can't be sold for slaughter or commercial gain - to deter profit-motivated adoptions.
But critics say BLM officials neither track the fate of adopted mustangs nor enforce laws prohibiting their sale to slaughterhouses - which typically pay $700 per horse. Federal wild horse managers now counter that they will boost random "home visits" to horse adopters from 5 to 20 percent. They will contact all adopters by telephone within six months of an adoption. And they will make unannounced visits to slaughterhouses.
The BLM's own research indicates that during 1995 and 1996, about 700 titled wild horses were processed at US slaughterhouses. These figures represent a small percentage of the thousands of wild horses adopted in those years, notes Mr. Johns.
But the BLM numbers refer only to wild horses slaughtered legally - meaning the adopter fulfilled the one-year waiting period before making the sale. Johns admits that the BLM cannot prevent adopters from selling a titled wild horse. Nor can it estimate how many untitled wild horses went to slaughterhouses, he adds.
While some question whether horses, titled or not, should be used for commercial gain, others find flaws in the fundamentals of the BLM program itself. "Thousands of horses a year, far more than could be taken care of by legitimate adoptions, have to be moved off the range," says Justice Department attorney Charles Brooks, who has investigated the program. "The agency's approach to this was 'don't ask, don't tell.' " Moreover, wild-horse advocates say the revised BLM policy will do little to protect wild horses, because legal sanctions are insignificant: Prosecution is rare, and penalties are only probation or a $100 fine.
IN Nevada, home to most of the nation's 40,000 mustangs, Maxine Shane, BLM public affairs director says convictions are unusual. "You're competing against all the other cases the Justice Department has. It's difficult just to get the case to court."
And it doesn't help that selling an untitled wild horse is a misdemeanor under federal law, adds Dale Tunnell, a former BLM special agent in New Mexico. "If you prosecute under Title 18, 'theft of government property,' then it becomes a felony."
A Justice Department spokesman adds that the revisions to BLM's horse policy will not affect how the government prosecutes horse-slaughter cases. Still they will cost taxpayers $1.5 million a year.
For some, scrapping the horse-adoption program altogether seems preferable to throwing more money at it. It already costs the government $1,100 to round up and adopt out a wild horse - resulting in a net loss of $975 apiece. "Then the crook goes out and makes $500 on the horse," says Steve Sederwall, a retired BLM law enforcement agent who led a major investigation. "This is just a scam that's costing the American taxpayer money. Why not just go out on the range and shoot the horse? It only costs a dime for a bullet."