CODY — When it comes to wild horses and burros, their advocates and opponents mostly agree on one thing: neither is satisfied with the BLM’s management of the species.
As of 2015, 220,000 horses and burros had been adopted since the inception of the program.
In an effort to increase adoptions, the BLM established the Adoption Incentive Program in 2019, which provides up to $1,000 to adopt an untrained wild horse or burro from the BLM. Under the program, adopters receive $500 within 60 days of adoption of an untrained wild horse and burro and the next $500 within 60 days of titling the animal, taking place around a year after the adoption.
In May, a New York Times story reported numerous instances of adopters “flipping” their horses once receiving the last of their $1,000 incentive, selling the equines off to slaughter houses or middlemen. The government requires all adopters to sign affidavits promising to “not knowingly sell or transfer the animal for slaughter or for processing into commercial products,” according to the BLM.
These practices are not new. In 1997, the Associated Press documented people adopting large numbers of wild horses that they would sell off for slaughter shortly after receiving their titles. That year the New York Times reported on a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found the BLM had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it came to these practices.
“I think it’s tragic,” local wild-horse advocate Ada Inbody said. “Again with the BLM, who’s overseeing?”
The BLM did not respond to comment about whether they have any way to enforce these agreements, and the American Wild Horse Campaign claims it is not attempting to do so.
The AWHC also found cases of abuse and severe neglect to wild horses and burros by adopters who were unwilling or unqualified to provide proper care.
“I strongly urge BLM to immediately suspend this program and conduct a thorough investigation to ensure federal funds are used to protect wild horses and burros against abuse, neglect, or slaughter, as intended by Congress,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in response to the report.
According to the AWHC, two horses adopted by Big Timber, Mont., resident Nathan Cumin that received title inspection in Cody, along with 11 horses owned by Cumin and his family, ended up at the Peabody Kansas Horse Pen. This kill pen has a partnership with a 501(c) 3 that finds as many horses as it can for adoption, but the organization makes no promises about being able to fulfill this.
Cumin said he had no knowledge that any of his horses ended up at a slaughter pen but admitted to selling adopted horses off to private buyers.
Park County Commissioner Chairman Lee Livingston said although he doesn’t condone violating the program's regulations by sending wild horses to slaughter illegally, he also isn’t surprised the system is being abused.
“The folks who came up with the program, I don’t know what the hell they were thinking,” he said. “It’s ripe for abuse.”
In July, BLM Deputy Director for Programs Nada Wolff Culver announced the agency is taking additional steps to ensure compliance after adoption to bring more scrutiny to potential adopters, and is increasing its warnings to sale barns about the risks of illegally selling wild horses and burros, among other steps.
Since the mid-1990s Inbody has been working with the McCullough Peaks herd of wild horses.
“I do love the horses,” she said.
In 2005, Inbody helped found Friends of a Legacy, a nonprofit committed to preserving and protecting the wild horse herd living in the McCullough Peaks.
FOAL aims to enhance the wild horse’s habitat and provide access for people to view the horses. It purchased 160 acres of land adjacent to the herd’s management area for educational displays, an interpretive trail and possibly a future visitor center.
One of the most common criticisms of wild horses is that they conflict with ranching. Both wild horse advocates and ranchers have accused the BLM of playing favorites with the other.
A U.S. Geological Survey study released earlier this month found that wild horses are adversely affecting sage grouse habitat. That study is being used as part of the rationale for removing thousands of free-ranging horses from this habitat. Wild horse advocates disputed the results of this study and mentioned how cattle numbers surpass wild horses by a ratio of more than 30-1 in this country.
The ultimate question is, should horses only be viewed for livestock potential or is it possible the species can carry on a different existence?
“I think they can exist effectively in the wild if they’re managed and kept at reasonable numbers,” said rancher Greg Flitner, who leases grazing land in the McCollough Peaks area occupied by the horses.
Ranching is tied to a direct economic result and inherently carries strong lobbying power, but the economic impact of wild horses is much smaller and hazy, at best. Mary Scuffham, president of FOAL, said the group uses a guestbook to track the amount of visitors the horses get in the McCullough Peaks, and by her estimates around 1,000 people typically go to see the horses each year. She said people from 41 U.S. states and four countries have already visited this year.
“There are going to be 3-4 photographers coming out from Arizona at the end of September,” she said.
A number of different local tour businesses also provide trips to see the horses.
Flitner said the horses cause significant damage to the landscape when not managed properly, eating up to 90 percent of vegetation in some locations.
“With cattle, when we get around 40% we move on to a different area,” he said. “It’s a fragile environment out there.”
According to cattle industry advocate Beef2live, Wyoming has the fifth highest cattle to human ratio in the nation with 1.2 million cows in the state. Cattle is a billion dollar industry in Wyoming and supports countless jobs in the state.
As of 2017, the BLM was issuing about 17,600 permits for grazing on public lands in 11 western states. Today grazing permits are leased at the far-below-market-rate of $1.35 per cow. This compares to private grazing fees that average more than $20 per cow-calf pair, according to The Wildlife News.
The BLM’s last removal of McCullough herd horses was in January 2013 when 20 wild equine were removed through bait-trapping. The last helicopter gathering and removal of horses was in October 2009. Bait-trapping, Inbody finds, is much more effective.
“It drives me mad to watch them stampede the horses with the helicopter and (the horses) break their legs,” Inbody said.
More recently BLM has been focused on birth control measures. Staff inject wild horses with Porcine Zona Pellucida, a horse birth control known as PZP that Fitzpatrick helped develop.
The fertility-control vaccine is given to mares on the range and is recommended by the National Academy of Sciences for use in federally protected wild horse herds.
“It’s working,” said longtime wild horse advocate Philyss Preator during the June 15 Park County commissioner meeting, adding that the McCullough herd population’s average age is relatively old, which also will contribute to preventing overpopulation. “I am constantly out there telling tourists and tour people we can’t have that many more babies.”
Scuffham said there are always a few mares that won’t respond to the PZP, but overall it’s been “very effective” for keeping down the population of the McCullough herd.
Populations of wild horses were more than one million at the turn of the century and Preator said in her book “Facts and Legends – Behind the McCullough Peaks Mustangs” there were wild horse ranges in the South and North forks, on Polecat Bench and the Badger Basin.
The construction of the Buffalo Bill Dam created a huge need for more draft animals in the area.
Preator documented an overgrazing problem on all public lands in the 1930s. By the 1940s she said the wild horses had become “pests” to the local sheepherders, especially after WWII when many more horses were turned loose. She said from 1930-1960 there was such an excess of wild horses that they were taken in purely for the purpose of slaughter.
There are about twice as many wild horses and burros in Wyoming now than there were in 2012. Although the McCullough herd was down to 100 in 2005, Scuffham said it was more than 500 before the use of PZP. According to the BLM, the current population of this herd sits at 172.
Flitner disputes this number and estimates the horse population at closer to 300.
Inbody wants the BLM to use PZP on every wild horse herd in America so the agency doesn’t have to depend on adoptions. Park County’s NRMP supports fertility control measures like PZP. Livingston on the other hand opposes the measures as he is against any federal dollars spent towards wild horses.
PZP was first used on the McCollough herd in 2004 and the Cody BLM Field Office has been administering fertility control by way of field darting in the herd management area since 2011. Inbody is a proponent of this birth control mechanism and took part in the darting for a number of years.
FOAL has partnered with the BLM since 2005 to improve the McCullough herd and supports the fertility control program by assisting with the field darting and funding the purchase of the PZP. It also funds drilling and maintenance of water wells and reservoirs for the horses as well as wildlife.
Scuffham said FOAL has been a leader within the wild horse world for its coordinating successes with the BLM.
She said they are initiating a living waters project involving input from cattle leasers, BLM staff and FOAL members to enhance the location of reservoirs to encourage better dispersal of species in the McCullough Peaks.
“That not only benefits the horses but also the cattle and other habitat,” Scuffham said.