Some Adopted Wild Horses and Burros End Up in Slaughter

Investigation finds flaws in federal adoption program.

Wild horses in a BLM holding facility in Utah
Wild horses wait in a BLM holding facility in Utah. George Frey / Getty Images

At first glance, it might have seemed like a good idea. To manage the overwhelming number of wild horses and burros grazing on public lands, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began offering a $1,000 cash incentive for people willing to adopt one of these animals and give them “a good home.”

But a recent investigation by The New York Times, prompted by research conducted by the American Wild Horse Campaign and several rescue partners, found that many of these wild horses and burros are ending up being slaughtered instead.

The BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program (AIP) began in March of 2019. It pays people $500 within 60 days of adoption and another $500 once they've received the ownership title to the animal. There’s a limit to four animals per person.

By 2020, when the full incentives were paid to adopters, rescue groups began noticing a marked increase in the number of wild horses and burros found at kill pens. (Kill pens are livestock auctions where the animals are sold and sent to slaughter plants in Canada and Mexico.)

“Since the start of the AIP, we have consistently seen more and more groups of unhandled mustangs dumped in kill pens, including some still wearing their BLM neck tags,” said Candace Ray, founder of Evanescent Mustang Rescue and Sanctuary, in a statement. “We expect to see many more unhandled mustangs needing rescue after adopters who received their $1,000 from the AIP funnel the horses into kill pens across the country. This cycle will continue until the program is shut down.”

The investigation by the AWHC and the Times found that some people were adopting the horses and burros, keeping them for a year, and then immediately selling them as soon as they collected the funds. They were in a sense, “flipping” them by selling them for slaughter, getting paid twice.

The investigation found that while many of these animals were being kept, they were not being handled or trained and many were being housed in inhumane conditions. According to the AWHC, they found emaciated, starving animals, and many that had been the victims of severe abuse. There was a horse that had been found living in a dog pen standing in 5 inches of mud. There was a horse with multiple sores all over its body. There was a horse that was found unable to stand with her neck folded back because it was injured so severely.

Adopters sign an agreement under penalty of perjury agreeing to provide humane care and agreeing not to sell the animals for slaughter.

Overgrazing and Roundups

The BLM manages wild horses and burros on 26.9 million acres of public lands across 10 Western states. The BLM created the Wild Horse and Burro Program to implement the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed by Congress in 1971. The law deems wild horses and burros to be "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" and says that the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service must manage and protect herds.

The BLM points out that herds can increase at a rate of up to 20% each year, doubling in size in just 4 to 5 years, without population control. Too many horses can lead to overgrazing on fragile lands and not enough food for healthy horses, according to the BLM.

Groups such as the AWHC, however, argue that public lands are being overgrazed instead by privately owned livestock. Ranchers, they say, pay a small fee to allow their cattle and sheep to graze on the land and that's where most of the damage is coming from.

In the past, the BLM has been criticized for the methods used to round up the animals for adoption and the trauma some of the animals experience in the holding pens afterward. According to the AWHC, there have been deaths during the stampedes during the roundup, as well as broken necks and other traumatic injuries as horses try to escape the holding pens.

Calling for Change

Since the Times story appeared, the AWHC has started an online petition asking Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to immediately suspend the AIP and launch an investigation into the program.

The petition calls for criminal prosecution of people who violated their contracts by selling their adopted horses for slaughter and for holding BLM employees accountable for knowingly putting animals into high-risk situations. The petition calls for funds to be redirected toward humane and scientific fertility control instead of roundup and sale.

Treehugger reached out to BLM but did not receive a reply by publication time.

"The Adoption Incentive Program is essentially a wild horse slaughter laundering operation created by the former Administration to accommodate accelerated removals from public lands," Grace Kuhn, communications director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, tells Treehugger.

She adds: "This program is defrauding U.S. taxpayers and violating the congressional ban on the sale of these federally-protected animals for slaughter. It must be shut down."

View Article Sources

  2. "About the Program." Bureau of Land Management.

  3. "Public Lands Ranching." American Wild Horse Campaign.