"If they give me the gold, I give them the halter," he said. "I really don't follow them down the road to see what they're gonna do with the horse." The BLM apparently has confidence in Vernon: It is about to deliver another 172 horses to him.
As for the North Dakota 400, Cudworth received his shipment of horses from Bloomfield last July, and by fall most of them were walking a 600-acre pasture of barren ground, brush and poor-quality grass at Minnewaukan Flats. Last winter the herd began dying of hunger and thirst. In January, passersby noticed a few carcasses in the pasture and complained to Benson County sheriff Ned Mitzel.
That was only a foreshadowing of the grim scenes to follow. In connection with the Oklahoma case, Querner had complained that BLM officials "have been doing nothing but making excuses for the care of the horses." In North Dakota, Sheila Bichler of Grand Forks, a Humane Society and API member, said BLM field workers on the case resisted pursuing an aggressive investigation.
It wasn't until early April, after an enterprising reporter from the Grand Forks Herald flew over the flats, that the full extent of the debacle was known. "There were carcasses all over," says the reporter, Randall Howell. His stories got results. On April 5, the BLM impounded the herd and returned it to Bloomfield. Cudworth claims the horses were "fed all the while." Asked by SI what they were fed, he said, "I'm not interested in the story."
According to Robert Hillman, field services director for the API, the North Dakota and Oklahoma incidents are not atypical: "The ranchers' mentality is that these horses are a chance to make a dollar.... The business is to sell them for slaughter. If they have to put out a lot in their care and keeping for that one year, they won't make much in the end. So they just let 'em graze out on the land. If they survive, great; if they don't, well, too bad. They're hardy little beasts."
The 1971 act gives the BLM the authority to kill healthy animals humanely if they go unadopted, but the bureau has never used it. "I don't think the government wants to be in the position of killing excess animals," Boyles says. The BLM is now seeking authority to sell the horses outright after roundups—which would make it a true mustanger, from roundup to slaughterhouse—but the agency had earlier asked Congress for that authority and had been turned down.
Given that and the fact that euthanasia is political dynamite, the bureau's ability to arrive at a merciful solution obviously will continue to be tested. And with the suspension of the mass-adoption, fee-waiver program, the surplus number of horses can only get larger.
The bureau still has the original Adopt-A-Horse program, in which single adopters take from one to four horses for $125 each. Boyles says the bureau will look into making that a more efficient way of disposing of horses.
Some animal rights advocates believe in letting the horses seek their own natural balance. "They haven't established that there are too many," says Frantz Dantzler, a director for the Humane Society of the United States. "I think what they should do is leave them alone." However, says Dale McCullough, professor of wildlife biology and management at the University of California in Berkeley, "I can name you case after case with other species where we've just tried to leave them out there, and we've suffered unacceptable rates of starvation. With the rate at which horse populations are building up on certain ranges, that could be disastrous. We could have massive mortalities."
Fred Wagner, associate dean of the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University, says, "The question becomes, What do you do with the animals you've rounded up? Those animals have to go somewhere, and the question is, Where do they go? That becomes a matter of public value and public taste."