Monday, August 17, 2009

OUR Sheldon Horses... How did this happen? - by Laura Leigh

OUR Sheldon horses…
How did this happen?
Laura Leigh

Recently I became interested in the issues faced by Wild Horses in our country. I did some digging and what I discovered disturbed me so much that I took a trip to Nevada to see “with my own eyes.” The legislative nightmare surrounding these horses leaves you with a very real sense of how voiceless they have become. And how difficult it is, due to special interests, to get a logical response from those in authority.

As a horse-rescue person I am familiar with the adage “Maybe you can’t change the whole world, but you can change one whole world.” So I started to look at the possibility of adopting a wild horse.

As with all “breeds” there exists differences in bloodlines. This statement rings true for wild horses as well. Some have more “Spanish blood,” some a greater human manipulation in their histories. Each herd is then shaped by the natural environment and challenges of each. I fell in love with the Sheldon.

The horses at Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge exist in primarily three horse herd groups. Traits general of the horses in the herds of Sheldon are 15+ hand size, bays, sorrels, and white facial and leg markings. It is also widely claimed, by those that have known these horses in their own lives, that they have “good minds.” The groups appear to rarely mix so each group also has specific characteristics.

The horses called the Catnip/Round Mountain herd seem to be a bit flashy. Some sorrels with flaxen manes and tails, overo pinto sorrels, palominos, some buckskins. Fish Creek herd horses are larger bays and dark brown horses, some tobiano pintos. Those of the Badger herd appear Thoroughbred/quarter horse, sorrels, chestnuts, and bays.

So I began to see if I could find a horse from the Fish Creek herd that needed a home. Not an easy task I discovered. Sheldon is not part of the BLM, the agency most of us think of when we think “wild horse.” The horses that exist within the boundaries of the refuge do not have the consideration, however mismanaged, that the BLM offers. The wild horses at Sheldon are considered nothing more than an invasive species!

Sheldon wild horses are the product of an evolutionary genetic pool that consists of original wild horses, ranch horses, and cavalry remounts. In the early part of the 20th century ranchers turned their saddle horses loose on the range.

During World War I, ranchers such as Harry Wilson went into business with the federal government raising horses for the Army. Wilson provided Standardbred mares acquired from the Miller and Lux ranches and the government furnished Thoroughbred studs.

Over 1,700 head of Wilson horses ran from High Rock Canyon north to the Oregon border, including all of the present day Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge." (from "MUSTANG COUNTRY”)

Sheldon Wildlife Refuge was created in 1931, to provide habitat for wildlife and is under the jurisdiction of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. At that time horses were believed to be a feral invasive species, and management law plans are still based on that assumption.

From the 40’s- the 60’s our federal government leased land to cattle companies operating on and around Sheldon.

In 1971 something truly remarkable happened. In response to public pressure, both houses of Congress unanimously passed a bill. Congress' intent clearly was to protect and preserve America's free-roaming horse herds and proscribe methods by which the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture were to manage those herds.

§ 1331. Congressional findings and declaration of policy

Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.

During the 70's and 80's, ranchers in the vicinity of Sheldon gathered horses, keeping the ones they wanted for saddle horses, and turning the remainder loose.

How it came about that the legal protections afforded most of America's free-roaming horses failed to include the herds at Sheldon is still unclear to me. Apparently Congress assumed that free-roaming horses and burros were found on BLM and US Forest Service lands, and somehow did not specifically include US Fish and Wildlife Service lands and the National Parks Service lands in the 1971 Act. I have tried to find any legal documents that actually describe the issues of standing and legal responsibilities over these horses and no clear explanations or documents have come to light.

Like all good “soccer moms” I turned to the World Wide Web. This is what I found.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages Sheldon NWR. The USFWS is different from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The mission of the NWR system is to administer lands and waters for the conservation and restoration of fish, wildlife, plant resources and their habitats for the benefit of the American people.

So how that translates into a reality that provides the horses at Sheldon no protection under the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, that supposedly expressed the overwhelming wishes of the American people is unclear to me.

However the defined mission of the US Fish and Wildlife Service appears not to include practical and humane management of free-roaming horses and burros, and therefore the Service can argue that the intent of Congress doesn't apply to them.

As a result these horses cannot be placed through the BLM's Adopt-a-Horse program. A situation has been created where an agency without the appropriate infrastructure to manage, gather and place horses and burros through qualified adoptions, or even hold them until they can be suitably placed is tasked with this responsibility without adequate support or management criteria. Thus another bureaucracy has been created where our tax dollars are "well spent."

So I went back to the web to find a place to adopt a Sheldon horse. A quick search provided the following list:

Forever Free Mustangs
Sisters, OR
(541) 923-6124 (this phone number was out of service when we tried to call them in mid-June, 2006)

Carr’s Wild Horse and Burro Center
4844 Couts-Carr Rd
Cross Plains, Tennessee 37049
(615) 654-2180
(615) 654-4655 fax

Gary Graham
W. Highway 6
Las Lunas, New Mexico 87031
(505) 565-8457
(505) 859-0690 cell

Brian Day
Refuge Manager
Sheldon NWR

Again all of this info is easily found on the internet. What I found turned my stomach.

First I discovered the process Sheldon uses to find suitable homes for horses and burros that the agency rounds up.

It all starts by making it impossible for rescues and individuals to directly adopt small numbers of the Sheldon horses directly from Sheldon. Sheldon allows only groups of horses to go to three supposedly screened agencies. The US Fish and Wildlife Service pays these "agents" $300 per horse to take them by the truckload! Is your head spinning yet?

To me it appears that these agreements are basically Federal contracts for services totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also I can’t find any process for selecting agents or contractors that involves any public bidding process. But that becomes a simple “sidenote” to what I found next.

I called Brian Day four times in the last week asking how to adopt a horse. My calls go direct to voicemail and I have yet to receive a call back. It’s summer time; maybe he’s on vacation?

Carr’s response seemed to be for real. I was given a date and a dialogue was actually begun about an adoption.

I located some information posted regarding Forever Free.

In conversations with potential adopters, Flora stated that FFM had placed 680 Sheldon horses last year, but when asked by Mr. Holland to confirm the number of horses and the timing, she became vague. When asked if FFM received $300 per horse, she responded "not for all of them". When asked for specifics, she became increasingly defensive. She stated that they had been careful to get them good homes and to make sure they did not go to slaughter. In conversations with others, Flora indicated they placed yet another "load" in January of this year and expected the next load in June. The timing of the gathers would indicate that FFM was able to place large numbers of horses within months or even weeks of their arrival.
More tellingly, Forever Free Mustangs has admitted that approximately 40 of the horses they originally adopted were found in a slaughter pen and had to be "bought back.”*

How can Forever Free place so many horses, so fast? In the rest of the world it just doesn’t work that way.

Then I looked into Gary Graham.

Apparently encouraged by the incredible efficiency of the Forever Free Mustangs adoption process, Brian Day, Sheldon Fish and Wild Life Service Refuge Manager, sent a letter to potential adopters in May announcing the new policy of funneling all horses through agents. The letter states "I have made it abundantly clear to all of them that the worst thing that could happen to this program is to have horses end up in a slaughter facility." In the letter he announced that they had found a third agent and that a thorough screening had shown this man to be of the highest integrity. The new agent's name was Gary Graham and his address was later given as 440 W. Highway 6, Los Lunas, New Mexico. A background check on Graham returned only the address and telephone number given by USF&W, but the address was a different matter.

The Graham address is virtually a Grand Central Station of horse slaughter. It is well known to the purchasing agents of the BelTex slaughter house in Texas. A summary check of their records showed that one Bill Owen used the same address when he delivered dozens of loads of horses to slaughter even as the Steffans were having such remarkable success finding "local adopters".

But the slaughter connection to Gary Graham's address does not end there. A physical check of the location revealed that it is the home of the Southwest Stock Yard run by one Dennis Chavez. Dennis Chavez was also busy delivering horses to BelTex during the period of FFM's adoption success, but using the address 24 Dallies Road, an address that is virtually the same property as that of Gary Graham and Bill Owen! And as if this were not enough, it is the address used by one Leon Spain when he delivered slaughter horses to the Dallas Crown slaughter plant in Kaufman, Texas.*

*This information comes directly from documents posted in 2006 by a special research group: Susan Pohlman, Valerie James-Patton and John Holland signed many of these documents.

This information was gathered in 2006! This is not a “new” situation. These horses have virtually no protections. They leave the Refuge unbranded, unidentifiable. How many have crossed our borders and into a slaughter plant by an industry that appears to be completely subsidized by tax dollars, and supported by an agency (Sheldon NWR) that does not have the ability to cope with wild horses with a standard that at least is attempted by the BLM!

The 2006 Gather

In June of 2006 the Sheldon NWR ordered a gather of wild horses. They had their specially screened contractors ready to take horses and the contractors would receive $300.00 a head for each horse they removed from the gather. The public was assured that gathers are safe and not done during foaling season. Yet extreme measures were taken to attempt to hide all activity from the public. Police were hired, gates were installed and a two-mile distance was then established for the public. Cattoor the company that flies the helicopters took to the air. I will add more info about the Cattoor contract later.

The FWS announced that the gather was done safely. It made a claim that all the foals had arrived with their mothers. FWS reported one injury involving a lip.

Reports began to come in of the various deceptions. Those listening to radio transmissions during the gather heard talk of a horse that broke a leg and was shot. A ground search began that turned up dead and injured foals. Mares in the gather pens aborted.

Sheldon NWR was notified of the slaughterhouse connection with Gary Graham. Out of the horses gathered Graham was still given 62, along with his $300.00 of taxpayer money per horse. Are you outraged yet?

If you would like to see pictures and statements from eyewitnesses go to this website.
Warning the pictures are not suitable for younger people.

July 2009, Challis, ID

A gather has taken place just recently in Idaho. A repeat process plays out of more terror, death and needless cruelty. Of particular interest is the absolute harassment of a single horse. The pilot flies so close that the horse can actually kick at the helicopter. This is your tax money at work.

Pictures at Challis, July 2009:

Gather planned at Sheldon, soon

As I made my inquiries to find my horse I was told horses would be available soon. Further inquiry has led me to the belief that a gather will take place within the next couple of weeks.

So I attempted to try to find ANY reason why this type of operation should be approved and funded buy my government. I found the EA (Environmental Assessment), I tried to compare to data from past gathers. The April 08 Final EA for Sheldon NWR is the document that will be used to base the “interim” gather policy until a final plan is drawn. Within the pages of the document I found inconsistencies in language. I found data only collected in house used within the actual document. Only within the public comments section are any real questions raised. Questions that are simply negated by a reiteration of the data in the document, no debate. However the most outlandish of the sources for data used to support the current protocol for gathers comes from Cattoor.

The data that appears within the Sheldon EA to support helicopter use as “safe,” during a gather, is produced from Sue Cattoor. Sue Cattoor owns Cattoor livestock. Cattoor livestock holds a “no bid” contract with the BLM to do the gathers. A “no bid” contract is one that is awarded without accepting other bids from other contractors. This contract over its term has netted Cattoor over 18 million taxpayer dollars. In any other process of law her statements would be viewed as biased due to self-interest and not considered as an objective recommendation as her statements would go directly to the survival of her contract! Even if her statements held validity it would not be appropriate that they be used as the sole source for any decision, in any process, that results in her receiving more of your taxpayer dollars.

The data used to justify the gathers themselves are no less suspect. I can find conflicting environmental data easily on the net, but none within the EA. I can find no truly impartial source within Sheldon's document.

From looking at this process there is in truth no viable, impartial, environmental reason for these gathers to take place at all. The data appears to be constructed primarily to justify and perpetuate a business venture: one that began without the planning or resources to ever attain any real functional and sustainable ecological balance. It correlates with no protocol adopted on a national level, provides no infrastructure within the Sheldon NWR to handle the issue, and offers no protection for the horses. What it does do is make me ask more questions.

From my point of view this is a clear cut example of the need for current legislation sitting now in the Senate to finally create a national standard that was intended in 1971.
S. 1579 actually is that doorway to begin the process of fixing the problems in a very tangible way, for all of OUR wild horses.

I am asking more questions. I am finding more answers. I will share them with you soon.

The answers aren't going to be found at Sheldon.

Current Action status:
There is a movement happening now to raise these questions and others on a legal level to begin to protect the horses at Sheldon and our national herd. The umbrella issues are beginning to take shape with actions surrounding S.1579.

But as national attention and resources are drawn into the larger issues, the horses continue to be exploited. The gather at Challis July 09, the one planned for the well-known “Cloud’s herd” in the Pryor Mountains (BLM), and the almost voiceless band at Sheldon NWR.

There may be a gather at Sheldon NWR within the next two weeks.

There is a chance that a legal effort made now can stall or stop the prospective gather. A strategy is currently in play.

Please clink on the links to see how you can help.

Laura Leigh
A concerned horse owner and artist

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for doing this research, Laura. It's a great resource and you've written it so well.