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 profiting from the slaughter are employees of the Bureau of Land Management, 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.
However, nothing in the law prevents anyone from selling the 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 care for the horses for one year, they get title in the form of BLM certificates bearing a number freeze-branded into each horse’s hide.
Using brand numbers and computer records, the AP traced more than 57 former BLM horses sold to slaughterhouses since September. Eighty percent were less than 10 years old and 25 percent were less than 5. Horses are often ridden into their 20s.
At the Cavel West slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore., for example, the proprietor, Pascal Derde, displayed BLM certificates for horses he recently butchered and sent to Belgium for human consumption.
“Killed on Friday, processed Monday, Thursday we load the truck and then it’s flown to Europe,” said Derde.
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 percent 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.
Clifford Hansen, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming who introduced the bill to create the program, 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. Adopters pay $125 for each healthy horse, and can get lame or old horses for as little as $25, or even for free. After holding the horses for a year, the adopters are free to sell them for slaughter, typically receiving $700 per animal.
The government spends $1,100. The adopter can make $575 or more.
The sellers find no shortage of horse-meat buyers. The demand for American horse meat has long been strong in Asia and Europe.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 million pounds of horse meat were exported in 1995 at an average price of 62 cents per pound. In 1996 prices were up to 80 cents a pound and rising. France and Belgium were the biggest buyers.
While nothing in the law prevents sending an adopted horse to slaughter, government officials offer conflicting opinions whether it is legal or ethical for BLM officials to adopt and sell 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 the whereabouts of their animals. Others acknowledged some of their horses were sent to slaughterhouses.
In Rock Springs, Wyo., the BLM corrals are run by Victor McDarment, whose crew rounds up horses from open ranges in Wyoming, freeze-brands them and arranges adoptions.
It’s a job that gives them access to thousands of horses.
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 an additional 54.
Most of the horses they adopted were discounted from the normal $125 fee. Some were free. Discounting is allowed if a horse is injured, old, or otherwise unlikely to get adopted. Because he’s in charge, McDarment decides if a horse should be discounted.
A discounted paint won a first prize for the McDarments at a national show last year. McDarment said the horse had been discounted because it had a leg injury.
McDarment said he could not account for the whereabouts of all the horses.
“I don’t keep track,” he said.
McDarment’s estranged wife, Carol McDarment, a hotel maid, said she never saw most of the horses adopted in her name.
“I just signed the forms and Vic drove them out,” she said.
Some ended up with Dennis Gifford, a Lovell, Wyo., rancher and rodeo contractor who said he has tried to breed them for bucking stock.
He said he is sure some of McDarment’s horses were slaughtered.
“They got to end up somewheres,” 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 Department of the Interior’s designated ethics official in Washington, D.C., said there is nothing wrong with BLM employees adopting wild horses and then selling them for profit.
In fact, an internal BLM memo issued in November, 1995, “encourages employees to adopt and train wild horses and burros for their personal use.”
“They’re not doing this as public officials,” Paone said. “They’re doing this as private citizens.”
“There’s a real gray area in the way the law was written as to whether they’re breaking the law or not,” said Deb Harrington, a BLM spokeswoman in Oklahoma.
The federal government is conducting several reviews of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, with two audits and two reports to Congress expected to be completed in 1997.
“I welcome the scrutiny,” said Pogacnik. “It can only help.”
Pogacnik said he hopes the reports and audits will help him figure out what to do with the 15,600 wild horses and burros the bureau has identified as excess that are now roaming 10 Western states.
“We’re here because we care about the critters,” said Pogacnik.
“They’re a wonderful part of America, and we’re here to protect them. Of course, we’ve got a ways to go.”