New Federal Policies Land America’s Wild Horses and Burros in the Slaughterhouse

A national investigation has revealed that a federal adoption program is sending wild horses and burros to slaughter.

Iconic American wild horses on the range. Photo by Shutterstock.

By Scott Beckstead

When the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Humane Society Legislative Fund (HSLF), ASPCA, and Return To Freedom announced their support for the so-called “Path Forward” – in a “deal” with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other pro-slaughter organizations — they heralded it as a boon for horses. It’s turned out, so far, just as we’ve said: a plan to depopulate horses from the West and to enable “kill buyers” to have their way with the animals.

In a combustible story published yesterday, the New York Times reported that the federal Bureau of Land Management is rounding up horses by the thousands and substantial numbers are going to slaughter.

In its Adoption Incentive Program (AIP), the BLM is paying adopters $1,000 to take wild horses the agency rounds up. It should be no surprise to anyone that the “adopters” are double dipping – they are pocketing the money, holding the horses for a short period, and then selling the horses to kill buyers. It’s a scam of taxpayer dollars and it’s an awful betrayal of the horses. And the Times story provides details to support the contention.

As I write this blog, there are BLM-branded wild horses and burros languishing in kill pens and at slaughter auctions, where they await a terrible end at a foreign abattoir.

Adobe Stock/equigini

While the wild horse advocacy community is united in fighting desperately to stop the roundups and protect the animals from slaughter, the groups behind the Path Forward watch silently from the sidelines as round-ups intensify and horses are sent to be butchered in Canadian and Mexican slaughter plants, to be served to diners in foreign countries.

The famed Onaqui horses of Utah and the Sand Wash Basin horses of Colorado – two herds beloved by millions across the globe for their rugged and robust beauty – may be next on the chopping block.

Wild horses in desert of Utah. Adobe Stock/Max

We know the BLM will only do the right thing when forced by Congress or the courts. We remember, for example, that in 2015, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report detailing the BLM’s deliberate sale of nearly 1,800 federally-protected wild horses to a kill buyer in Colorado named Tom Davis, who profited handsomely by selling the animals for slaughter in Mexico.

I worked at HSUS when the “Path Forward” was unveiled in 2018. I was devastated and alarmed, and immediately pushed internally to get the organization to abandon its support it. My objections were based on my passion for wild horse protection and my close understanding of wild horse policies, but they were dismissed – and likely played a role in the decision to terminate my position and send me on my way. Meanwhile, HSUS and the other humane groups continued to deflect public outrage and criticism by saying they were committed to making sure wild horses and burros removed by the federal government would have a safe place to land. They promised the BLM would commit to “relocation of horses and burros currently in short-term holding facilities and those newly taken off the range to large, cost-effective, humane, free-roaming pasture facilities.”

It’s worked out very differently.

The BLM regards the wild horses as an unwanted headache, just as it regards wild horse advocates with open contempt. It ridicules the idea that wild horses should be given names as a means of following and monitoring them on the range. It scoffs at the idea that these animals grieve and mourn the loss of their family members during the roundups. Instead of treating the animals with the respect enshrined by Congress in the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, they are treated like trespassers.

The BLM’s attitude toward wild horses should be judged not by the agency’s soothing words on its websites and in media statements, but by the photographs and videos taken during the roundups by advocates and by the reporting that exposes misery and death.

Horses breaking their necks as they are stampeded into the traps. Horses chased by helicopter to the point of utter exhaustion. Pregnant mares aborting their foals while being relentlessly dogged by the choppers. Tiny foals being left behind or running to the point that their delicate little hooves literally break off. Foals being roped and dragged by the neck into traps by BLM “cowboys” riding high-priced roping horses. Horses being “euthanized” by gunshot for being elderly, underweight, for limping, or for possessing slight conformational irregularities like an overbite. Those circumstances, along with the slaughtering of horses and burros enabled by the Adoption Incentives Program, are the consequences of the “Path Forward.”

It falls to the wild horse advocate community to shield the horses from this abuse. Advocates like Clare Staples, the founder and leader of Skydog Sanctuary, are pulling BLM horses from kill pens and saving as many as they can. Others, like Carol Walker, are meticulously documenting the plight of the Wyoming wild herds and fighting against a near-extermination plan there; this summer, the BLM has plans to remove over 3,500 from the range to clear the way for cattle and sheep. Other advocates are rallying for the horses.

Captured horses in a corral. Photo provided by FRER.

I ask caring Americans to please be certain who you’re supporting with your donations. Support only the groups that oppose the Path Forward and are working to stop the roundups. This will only stop when these groups understand they are alienating the people who enable their work.

And demand better from our government: Contact U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and urge her to stop the roundups, eliminate livestock grazing on wild horse Herd Management Areas (HMA), and focus instead on the ecological damage being done by the millions of cattle and sheep devastating our public rangelands at taxpayer expense.  And Congress must hear from you, too.  It’s not too late to turn this terrible situation around.

Scott Beckstead is the director of campaigns at Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, adjunct professor of law at Willamette University, and former Mayor of Waldport, Oregon who resides in Sutherlin, Oregon.