Gary Kidd, 73, had never adopted an untrained wild mustang in his life with horses. But when the federal government started paying people $ 1,000 per horse to adopt, he signed up for as many as he could. So did his wife, two grown daughters and a son-in-law.
Mr Kidd, who owns a small farm near Hope, Ark., Said in a recent telephone interview that he used the federally protected mustangs to breed stallions and that they happily ate green grass in his pasture.
In fact, the animals were long gone when he spoke on the phone. Records show that Mr. Kidd sold them almost as quickly as he could legally. He and his family received at least $ 20,000, and the mustangs ended up in a dusty cattle auction in Texas attended by slaughterhouse brokers known as kill buyers.
When asked about the sale, Mr. Kidd abruptly hung up.
The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for caring for the country’s wild horses, launched the $ 1,000 per capita adoption incentive program in 2019 because it wanted to remove and find a huge surplus of mustangs and burros from government corrals. “Good houses. “Thousands of first-time adopters have signed up and the office hailed the program as a success.
But records show that truckloads of horses were dumped at slaughter auctions instead of going to good houses once their adopters received the federal money. A program to protect wild horses instead subsidized their path to destruction.
“This is the government that washes horses,” said Brieanah Schwartz, an advocacy advocate for the American Wild Horse Campaign who followed the program. “They call it adoptions because they know the horses will slaughter. But this way the BLM won’t get fingerprints on it. “
The office denies the allegations, noting that the government requires all adopters to sign affidavits promising not to sell the horses to slaughterhouses or their intermediaries. However, a spokesman said the office has no authority to enforce these agreements or prosecute the horses once the adopters take ownership of them.
People who dump mustangs at auctions can adopt and get paid again, the spokesman said.
It has been 50 years since Congress unanimously passed a law to protect wild horses and burros from mass tours and slaughter, and to ensure they have a permanent and sustainable place on public land in the west. But decades of missteps, systemic problems and rising costs have endangered both the horses and the western landscape.
Wild horses once roamed millions of dollars in North America, but when free range farming disappeared in the early 20th century, almost all of them were hunted and converted into manure and dog food. When they were finally protected in 1971, there were fewer than 20,000 left.
Once protected, the residual herds began to grow again – much faster than the government was prepared for. The office estimates that the herds of wild horses alone are increasing by around 20 percent annually.
The office has tried for decades to stabilize the numbers through the use of helicopters to collect thousands of Mustangs annually. But the office has never found enough people willing to adopt the untamed Broncos it is removing. For example, surplus Mustangs – around 3,500 a year – have instead gone into a network of government storage pastures and corrals known as a restraint system.
There are now more than 51,000 animals in hand, devouring so much of the program budget – about $ 60 million a year – that the office has little left to manage mustangs in the wild.
“It’s completely unsustainable,” said Terry Messmer, a professor of wildlife resources at Utah State University who studied program history. “I don’t think anyone who passed this law would be happy with the result 50 years later.”
The office declined to comment on the recording for this article.
Bureau leaders have repeatedly suggested weeding out the camp herds, but they have always been blocked by lawmakers considering that a large majority of voters do not want symbols of their heritage to be turned into pieces of meat.
Take part in the Adoption Incentive Program, which is based on the idea that paying $ 1,000 per capita for adopters is far cheaper than the average lifetime cost of $ 24,000 when a horse is owned by the government.
The program nearly doubled the number of horses leaving the husbandry system, and the office called it “a win-win” that “helped animals find homes with families that they will look after and enjoy for years to come” .
The once sleepy adoption events of the office have been changed. “It turned into a feeding frenzy – I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Carol Walker, a photographer who documents Wyoming’s wild herds.
In February, she came to an event in Rock Springs, Wyo., And found a number of followers half a mile long. When the gates opened, people rushed to sign up for adoptions without inspecting the Mustangs.
“These people weren’t there to take care of the horses,” said Ms. Walker. “They were there because they took care of the money.”
Of course, over the years tens of thousands of wild horses have been adopted by people who kept and cared for them in accordance with legal requirements. Some became ranch horses, others worked in the Border Patrol, and one became world champion in dressage.
However, the adoption program was hardly selective. A man in Oklahoma was paid to take horses with him despite previously going to jail for kidnapping and beating two men during a poor slaughterhouse.
The program contains rules designed to discourage quick money seekers. Adopters are limited to four animals per year and will not receive full payment or title papers for 12 months.
Even so, records show several cases where families like the Kidds have banded together to get more than four horses. And numerous Mustangs with the unmistakable government brand appeared at slaughter auctions after the one-year waiting period had expired.
“We’d occasionally see a mustangs or two, usually old ones that someone had owned for years, but suddenly the floodgates opened,” said Clare Staples, who started a wild horse sanctuary in Oregon called Skydog Ranch.
Ms. Staples said she helped find homes for more than 20 adopted Mustangs that were dumped at auctions, apparently after receiving little maintenance. Many are emaciated, with unkempt manes and uncut hooves, she said, and they often have parasites.
The office refused to provide adoptive lists. But an informal network of wild horse advocates has put together what happens by using donated money to outbid buyers at auctions. In this way, they save Mustangs from slaughtering and receive title papers detailing the history of ownership of the horses.
The newspapers show that many quick resell adopters live in sections of the Great Plains where pastures are cheap and people often get their livelihoods from various sources. These adopters often took the maximum number of horses and sent them up for auction soon after their final state payments were settled.
Lonnie Krause, a rancher in Bison, SD, adopted four horses in 2019, as did his grandson. In an interview, he said he saw nothing wrong with putting the Mustangs up for auction and admitted that they would likely go out to kill buyers.
“It’s economy,” he said. “I can make about $ 800 if I put a calf on my land for a year. I made $ 1,000 with the horses, then turned around and sold them for $ 500. “
Mr. Krause said office workers told him he wasn’t breaking the rules. “Once you get the title, they told me there is no limit – you can do whatever you want with them,” he said.
Outsourcing mustangs is critical to the office as the wild horse program is currently in crisis. The cost of storing horses has cannibalized the helicopter budget, and summaries can no longer keep up with the growing herds. There are now around 100,000 wild horses in the West – three times what the office says it can support. If they’re not activated, they could be 500,000 in another decade.
Managers warn that the growing herds could graze public land to the ground, destroying ranchers who compete for grass and harming fragile desert landscapes and native species.
For decades, government auditors and scientific advisors have warned the office to move away from summaries and instead control populations in the field through fertility control drugs provided by darts and other management tools that don’t add horses to the holding system, but the office has never done changed course, in part because the cost of storing horses has hampered his ability to do anything else.
“We are at a turning point,” said Celeste Carlisle, member of the Wild Horse Program Citizens’ Advisory Council and biologist for a wild horse sanctuary called Return to Freedom, which has been looking for alternatives to summaries. “We have to turn things around or there will be a catastrophe.”
At the kill buyer auctions, people who love wild horses try to respond.
One night last fall, Candace Ray, who runs a wild horse rescue organization called Evanescent Mustang Rescue near Dallas, clicked through photos on a nearby auction website when she discovered 24 young, untamed mustangs. Within a few hours she collected hundreds of donors on Facebook.
Ms. Ray persuaded a young couple who were giving horse riding lessons at their nearby farm, Cody and Shawnee Barham, to go to the auction and bid.
The Mustangs were all small and shy. None, apparently, had ever been treated. Serial numbers on the neck indicated that they were born free in Nevada, Utah, or New Mexico.
The Barhams bid for hours. By midnight, they had spent $ 16,000 on donations and owned 24 horses. When they received the title papers, the names of the adopters who sold the horses had been blacked out with a marker. But holding the papers to a light revealed the names and addresses of the Kidd family.
The Barhams brought the Mustangs to their farm, opened the trailer doors and let them run. The couple plan to train them to adopt a halter and then find people who will “give them a home forever.”
Cody Barham got up one morning and watched the herd nibble in one of his fields, a greasy John Deere hat on his head and a nine-millimeter pistol on his hip (for snakes). He watched as his wife walked quietly into the pasture with an outstretched hand and a horse biscuit. One of the braver mustangs, a little black stallion, approached to sniff.
“Our goal is to get her to a point where you can just love her,” he said. “But after everything you’ve been through, it might be a while before you trust people.”