Jurisprudence: All the Vanishing Horses

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

Jurisprudence: All the Vanishing Horses

Is the BLM running roughshod over America's fabled wild steeds?
By Anne Goodwin Sides

One of the bureau of land management's better efforts in recent years has been the promotion of its Wild Horse Adoption Program, a happy-animal undertaking that nets plenty of Sunday-supplement column inches each fall, typically the season when the BLM publicity machine whirs to full wild-horses life. This autumn, however, the stories could close less happily, as troubling charges mount about the BLM's handling of the project--allegations that depict an effort so misguided and corrupt that it may actually be hastening the wild horses' demise.

Currently, two separate federal grand juries in Del Rio, Texas, and Jackson, Mississippi, are considering a tangle of alleged criminal activities within the program, and indictments could be handed down as early as this month. Among the items expected to be listed: adoption-for-profit schemes, altered government horse-inventory records, and obstruction of justice on the part of senior BLM officials.

"You start to lose faith," says Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros. "If the Bureau of Land Management continues its ways, America's wild horses are going to be managed to extinction."

Some 35,000 wild horses roam public rangelands across the West. Romanticized for their feistiness and conquistador-vintage bloodlines but despised by cattle ranchers as mangy competitors for scarce forage, wild horses have been federally protected since 1971, the year Congress entrusted the BLM to halt widespread rustling and slaughter. Yet horse advocates such as Sussman contend that hundreds of the animals are still illegally sold for slaughter each year--often with a wink and a nod from the BLM--by individuals who have adopted them through the program. And the latest charges are not the first: Over the past quarter-century the program has gained a reputation for bad management, neglect, and graft, a sordid accounting that seems about to break into the full glare of public scrutiny.

The Del Rio grand jury investigation, the more sweeping of the two, is looking into a dozen suspicious group adoptions, involving more than 550 horses, that were approved in the early 1990s by Don Galloway and Bill Sharp, two BLM-contracted wranglers who ran the adoption program in the Southwest. In one of those adoptions, an informant claimed he'd heard Galloway boast that the horses would graze at a friend's ranch in Texas "until they put on enough weight to sell to the killers" for as much as $1,000 per horse. Also under scrutiny is an alleged case of fraud at an Oklahoma horse sanctuary, where the BLM may have been paying as much as $300,000 a year to maintain 750 horses that the agency's records show weren't there.

Phantom horses aren't the only ephemeral elements of the controversy. Soon after Assistant U.S. Attorney Alia Ludlum convened the Del Rio grand jury in July 1994, odd things began to happen. Three high-ranking BLM officials who'd been subpoenaed to testify refused to appear. Although neither side would comment, BLM investigators close to the case claim that the Justice and Interior Departments hatched an unusual agreement freeing any BLM employee from subpoena.

Meanwhile, at least seven BLM employees involved in the Del Rio investigation have been pulled off the case, being either transferred, terminated, or pressured into early retirement. And several others say they were ordered by their superiors not to talk to the U.S. Attorney's office. These roadblocks look like they're working. At press time, no employee of the Wild Horse Adoption Program has been charged with violating criminal law or even the bureau's own regulations--a failure to clean house that distresses BLM investigators who have spent years gumshoeing agency corruption. "You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a crook in this program," says Steve Sederwall, the BLM law enforcement agent who led the bureau's initial investigation into the Galloway case but who has since retired. "The American people are being swindled, but once again it's the wild horse that's the biggest loser here."

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