Most of the horses stood docilely inside the large steel pen at the bottom of a dirt slope, their dull, windblown coats looking much like bony moonscapes. A few lay sprawled on their sides, eyes closed. It was early April in Bloomfield, Neb., at a federal holding pen for wild horses, but the only thing wild here was the wind.
"You know how these horses smelled when they came in here this week?" said Bruce (Smokey) Stevens, the cowboy watching over the herd, as he walked among the horses. "They smelled like they were dead. It was like they had given up. I had to drag one off the truck. He was so weak he wouldn't get up. We had to shoot that one."
They almost had to shoot another. Stevens pointed to an isolation pen where a small black horse, gaunt and emaciated, stood in a corner, his head down. "When he came in, he wouldn't get off the truck," Stevens said. "We put a halter on him and dragged him off. He didn't have any life in him. That's terrible, the condition he's in. It's plumb ridiculous to let something get like that. He's lucky he's alive."
What this herd of 270 wild horses had just been through, on the bleak Minnewaukan Flats of central North Dakota, was a winter of starvation, dehydration and neglect, a winter that left at least 110 horses dead out of the original herd of 400, and many more missing. It was a winter in which, at times, they had nothing to drink, because the surface water was frozen, and not enough to eat. It was a winter spent on a barren pastureland, hard by Devils Lake, where the windchill factor commonly reaches 50° below zero.
The terrible suffering that befell these animals, and similar devastation to other wild-horse herds, has served dramatically to discredit, once again, federal government efforts to control the nation's wild-horse population by virtually giving away large numbers of animals to private interests under a fee-waiver, mass-adoption program. In the wake of the public outcry over these flagrant indecencies, the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced last week that it is suspending the program indefinitely. The BLM still intends, however, to honor fee-waiver applications already approved through September.
The BLM is caught in a philosophical and legal crossfire from conflicting interests and pressures. The agency estimates there are 38,000 wild horses on 34.9 million acres of public land, about 7,000 more horses than BLM wants out there, and so roundups will continue. Another 8,670 await adoption in federal pens. According to the BLM, each horse costs the taxpayer $165 to round up and $2.25 a day to sustain once it has been captured. Since 1980, the BLM has spent $92 million on the program.
The BLM: 1) uses helicopter roundups to move "excess" horses off public ranges in 10 Western states; 2) collects them in holding pens in places like Bloomfield; 3) allows an individual to "adopt" hundreds of horses, at no fee, by using powers of attorney collected from other people; 4) is supposed to inspect the horses for one year to make sure they are being treated properly; and 5) at the end of the one-year period, if indeed the animals have been cared for, grants title to the new owner.
A number of cases of neglect and abuse have been reported during the waiting period, that of the North Dakota 400 being perhaps the most shocking. And, of course, many of the wild horses have ultimately ended up in slaughterhouses, and then in cans of dog food or on dinner plates in Canada or parts of Europe, where horse meat is considered a delicacy. (Ranchers can usually get between $150 and $250 a head for slaughterhouse horses.) The BLM does not attempt to ascertain what the adopter intends to do with the horses once he owns them. But last summer Howard McKibben, a federal district court judge in Nevada, ordered the BLM to withhold title from any adopter who expressed an intent to exploit the horses—i.e., sell them for slaughter or as bucking stock in rodeos. The BLM had admitted to him that on some occasions it knew before granting title that the adopters intended to slaughter the animals.
Noting that the BLM seemed to believe it was obliged by "some unwritten requirement" to pass title, even if it knew of an adopter's intent to exploit the horses, McKibben wrote, "Such a position defies logic and common sense and is contrary to legislative intent."
That ruling got rancher M.E. Eddleman in trouble in Pompeys Pillar, Mont., where he has had 600 BLM horses in holding pens for more than a year. Last summer, after talking with a reporter about what happens to adopted mustangs, Eddleman was quoted in the Helena, Mont., Independent Record as saying that they go to slaughter. "Everybody knows what's happening, but nobody will admit it," he said. On the basis of that comment and Judge McKibben's ruling, the BLM ordered title for the 600 horses withheld from Eddleman.