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The case of the missing mustangs; what happened to 1,700 wild horses?

Dave Philipps

Tom Davis at his corrals in La Jara, Colo.


The semis would rumble down country roads packed full of wild horses. Truckload after truckload, sometimes 36 horses at a time, all with the same destination: a ranch in the small town of La Jara, Colo.  

Records show that for years, the Bureau of Land Management sold and shipped more than 1,700 wild horses from its animal holding facilities to just one rancher. Now federal investigators are trying to figure out:  What did he do with all those mustangs? And did any of them ultimately end up being butchered in the slaughter plants of Mexico? 

Wild horse advocates fear the worst. They want to know the truth about the fate of the horses and whether the U.S. government looked the other way as the federally protected animals seemingly disappeared. 

“I want to know where the horses went,” said Laura Leigh of the group Wild Horse Education, which advocates on behalf of the wild mustangs. “It’s disgusting, it’s abhorrent.  Whoever signed that slip to approve those sales, I want to look them in the eye and say, ‘What were you thinking?’” 

Federal investigation
The BLM is charged with protecting wild horses under federal law and has confirmed that the Interior Department Office of Inspector General is investigating the agency’s sale of mustangs to rancher and livestock hauler Tom Davis. 

The Davis investigation comes amid a growing controversy over the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. The agency faces a dire situation: Nearly 50,000 horses captured during frequent roundups, so-called “excess animals,” are living in government holding facilities that are nearing capacity.  Horse adoptions are down, so the BLM has turned to selling the animals. 

Controversy over the Bureau of Land Management's roundups of wild horses and burros ranging over 10 Western states is coming to a head, with ranchers, horse advocates and even the government acknowledging that the program is heading toward crisis. NBC News' Lisa Myers has the story.

The government says Davis, who paid just $10 per head, was the biggest buyer ever of wild horses. Its sale of the animals to Davis from 2008 to 2012 was uncovered by writer Dave Philipps in a September 2012 story, “All The Missing Horses,” for the nonprofit news organization ProPublica.  The story questioned whether Davis sent the horses to so-called “kill buyers,” middle men who export livestock to meat packing plants in Mexico, but reached no firm conclusion. 

At the time, BLM issued this response to the ProPublica story: “The BLM condemns any sale of wild horses for slaughter.  We care deeply about the well-being of wild horses, both on and off the range, and the BLM does not sell and has not knowingly sold or sent horses or burros to slaughter.” 

Courtesy of The Cloud Foundation

Controversy over roundups of wild horses roaming the ranges in 10 Western states is reaching a boil, with ranchers, horse advocates and even the government itself in agreement that the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Bureau Program is "out of control." Click to view photos of the horses in the wild, and during and after the BLM roundups.

Davis did not respond to repeated attempts by NBC News to contact him for comment and his lawyer, former federal prosecutor William Taylor, declined to answer questions about the federal investigation of his client. 

But Taylor provided NBC News with a statement criticizing the government for not following part of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.  While the 1971 law was enacted to protect wild horses, Taylor said, “Congress specifically amended the Act in 2005 to remove ‘excess’ animals from the Department of Interior’s protection, and to force the government to sell those animals without condition. … How does the government have any power under the Act to bring a case based on the sale of excess animals?”

The BLM acknowledges on its website that it is “not in compliance” with that part of the federal law which directs the agency to sell excess animals “without limitation” to any willing buyer, even to those who would slaughter the animals.

Last year, ProPublica reported that Davis is a proponent of slaughtering wild horses in the BLM’s holding system and that he had tried unsuccessfully to obtain funding to open a slaughter plant in Colorado.

“Hell, some of the finest meat you will ever eat is a fat yearling colt,” Davis was quoted as saying, “What is wrong with taking all those BLM horses they got all fat and shiny and setting up a kill plant?”

But Davis denied to ProPublica that he ever knowingly resold any wild horses for slaughter, saying he found “good homes” for the mustangs he purchased from BLM.  

Who needs 1,700 horses?
According to BLM sales documents obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act, Davis told government officials he wanted the animals to “put on oil fields ... to keep grass controlled” and to “use for movies.”  

Horse advocate Leigh said neither of those explanations should have withstood the government’s scrutiny. 

“You know, I haven’t seen any Westerns coming out of Mexico with wild horses being stampeded in front of a camera,” she said.  “It’s a joke and it’s not a funny one.” 

So-called state brand certificates issued by the state of Colorado and obtained by NBC News indicate Davis shipped many of the animals he bought from the BLM to small towns near the Mexican border. The Colorado brand commissioner says approximately 431 horses shipped from Davis’ property “appear to be BLM horses” that were sent to unspecified addresses in towns in different parts of New Mexico and Texas, including Spofford, Texas, 36 miles from the Eagle Pass border crossing into Mexico. 

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there are Mexican slaughterhouses across that border,” said Ginger Kathrens of The Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group. “So it’s not a stretch to think that those horses ended up going to slaughter.” 

Another advocacy group, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, has called for the investigation of both Davis and the BLM. The organization’s director, Suzanne Roy, said, “I think the government looked the other way at what was happening to these horses. ... I think it was willful ignorance on the part of the government.” 

Joan Guilfoyle, chief of BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, told NBC News she does not know what happened to the horses that were sold to Davis, but denied the agency did anything wrong.  “We have no knowledge of him being a person who has ill intent toward the horses,” she said, “so there was no reason to question the purchase of these (animals) because he has to sign the paper that says what his intention is.” 

Criticism of roundups is not limited to wild horses. The BLM also annually removes "excess" wild burros from public lands, mainly in Arizona, Nevada and California. In this video, wild burro advocates document "aggressive" roundup practices. As with horse roundups, the BLM defends the operations as humane and says such incidents are isolated and contrary to guidelines.

In fact, 50 BLM bills of sale reviewed by NBC News indicate Davis agreed not to resell the wild horses for slaughter. On a BLM sales questionnaire, Davis’ name was signed on this declaration: “I agree to provide humane care and to not sell or transfer ownership of any listed wild horse or wild burro to any person or organization with the interest to resell or trade or give away animals for processing into commercial products.” 

An official familiar with the Davis investigation told NBC News that investigators are not only trying to determine what happened to the horses, but whether Davis violated any of the conditions of his purchase. 

Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson said that, based on the bill of sale language, investigators could be trying to determine if there is evidence of a felony violation such as lying or making a false statement to a federal official. 

New sales rules
In January 2013, BLM responded to public criticism of its sale of wild horses to Davis by announcing new rules for the agency’s sales program.  In an effort to prevent future large sales of wild horses, the agency issued a memorandum stating: “Without prior approval from the (BLM) assistant director, no more than four wild horses and/or burros may be purchased by an individual or group within a six-month period.” 

Horse advocacy groups immediately criticized the new rules as “window dressing.”  Laura Leigh of Wild Horse Education said, “It changes nothing, especially when they add a little fine print in there.  There is no change.  It creates a press release so BLM can look responsible, like they’re listening to the American public.” 

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One month later, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and 20 other members of Congress signed a letter to then-Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who oversaw BLM, citing the “substantial public outcry” over the ProPublica story on Davis.  The Feb. 13 letter said the co-signers were “troubled by your department’s lack of response to the legitimate concerns raised” by horse advocates and demanded an update about the Inspector’s General investigation.  Grijalava’s office said Salazar never responded to the letter.

Later this year, the Office of Inspector General is expected to present its findings to a U.S. Attorney, who will decide if any charges will be filed against Davis.

Lisa Myers is NBC News' Senior Investigative Correspondent; Michael Austin is a producer in NBC's bureau in Burbank, Calif.