Federal agents, already catching heat for allowing the slaughter of thousands of wild horses, gave false information to Congress this year while trying to prove aggressive enforcement of a law meant to protect the animals, the Associated Press has found.
The Bureau of Land Management declared 125 people had been convicted of violating the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act from 1985 to 1995.
Government records, however, reveal a far slimmer tally.
Using computer databases, the AP reviewed records of all federal prosecutions in 1985-95 and found only three convictions under the wild horse law. Twenty-three people were convicted in the same period of assorted other crimes related to the abuse of wild horses or burros.
The discrepancy needs “more explanation,” acknowledged BLM spokesman Bob Johns.
“I would suspect that Justice defines convictions differently than we do,” Johns said. “I don’t think there was any deliberate intention to mislead the public.”
Johns said the BLM defines convictions to include indictments, citations, fines and even cases that U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute.
In early June, after four months of promises to produce records of the 125 convictions, Johns said the Interior Department’s solicitor would release no further information.
The lack of criminal convictions is evidence that people who adopt wild horses can sell them for slaughter with impunity, more than a dozen former BLM law enforcement agents told the AP.
“The law is supposed to keep wild horses and burros out of the slaughterhouse, but without enforcement there’s no teeth to it. It’s a joke,” said Dale Tunnel, a retired agent who ran BLM law enforcement for Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas in the 1980s and early ‘90s.
The BLM made its claim about convictions in January, just weeks after the AP reported the adoption program was in disarray. In a series of stories this year, the AP has reported many people who adopt wild horses or burros under the $16 million-a-year program could not account for their animals, that thousands of horses had ended up in slaughterhouses and that politics had shut down a Texas grand jury’s 1996 criminal investigation into the program.
In the weeks after the first stories appeared, several members of Congress asked the BLM for evidence the adoption program was working. The BLM’s response to their inquiries was additionally posted on the Internet and sent to newspapers. The BLM said it was “committed to doing all that it can to ensure that wild horses are adopted by people who provide humane care.” Those who neglect or abuse the animals are prosecuted, the BLM insisted.
“For example, in the years 1985 to 1995, the BLM investigated numerous possible violations related to the wild horse and burro program resulting in 125 convictions, despite the fact that these are often difficult cases to prove,” Thomas Pogacnik, chief of the Wild Horse and Burro Program, said in the statement.
Pogacnik did not return calls from the AP seeking an explanation for the misleading claim of 125 convictions.
The BLM “should know better,” U.S. Rep. Steve Schiff, R-N.M., told the AP last month. Schiff had earlier called for a congressional inquiry into the wild horse program.
Federal officials should realize that a request to prosecute is not a conviction, said Schiff, a former Albuquerque district attorney.
In defending its attempts to enforce the law, the BLM may actually be trying to defend a law that is unenforceable.
Justice and Interior records show that U.S. attorneys dropped or declined at least 75 cases in the last decade. In many more incidents of abuse, including thousands of horses shot dead on public lands, no one was even arrested.
“It’s not a good criminal statute,” said Rhonda Backinoff, an assistant U.S. attorney in Albuquerque who has declined to prosecute three Wild Horse and Burro Act cases. Many prosecutors regard the law as ambiguous and open to interpretation on violations.
“It’s a beautiful piece of writing, talking about the wild horses and the wild plains, but you need to be real specific in a criminal statute, and this one wasn’t tightly drawn,” Backinoff said.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed by Congress 25 years ago to control the animals, which compete with cattle for forage on public lands, and keep them from “disappearing from the American scene.”
The law says the Interior Secretary establishes how many animals public lands can support, rounds up the extras and offers them for adoption. Wild herds with more than 40,000 animals now roam vast expanses of 10 states; authorities hope to get that down to a permanent herd of 29,000 next year.
Most people who adopt horses make them pets or ride them for pleasure. Those who abuse or neglect adopted animals face fines of up to $2,000 and a year in jail. Those who harass or disturb the animals on public lands are also subject to prosecution.
Many ranchers consider the law a slap at the traditions of the West.
“We run horses all our life, yes, ma’am, and I’m proud of the fact that my family, whenever we needed money, we made our money off the mustangs,” said George Parman, a Eureka, Nev., rancher.
Parman is one of the rare individuals to be even prosecuted. In 1990, he was caught with 117 wild horses he’d allegedly stolen on public land.
Parman and several other men were tried but found not guilty because, as Parman put it, his attorneys “poked holes all over the case.”
In May, acting BLM director Sylvia Baca told Congress that while “enforcement … continues to be controversial,” agents were committed to investigating every report of harm to a free-roaming or adopted horse or burro.
But retired officers say it just isn’t happening.
“You have a law that’s supposed to protect the horses, but if you have ineffective law enforcement, it’s as if there is no law,” said Steve Sederwall, a retired agent.
Tugging on one end of his handlebar mustache, Sederwall added, “It’s the horses that pay the price.”