Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Whistleblowers Claim Abuses Run Rampant in Horse Policy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Whistleblowers Claim Abuses Run Rampant in Horse Policy

Article excerpt

More than 40,000 wild mustangs roam on public lands in the West, federally protected as living symbols of American heritage. Since 1971, the Bureau of Land Management has been responsible for maintaining mustang herds and administering a popular adopt-a-horse program. But allegations of criminal activities within the BLM - including slaughter-for-profit schemes - are casting a shadow over the agency.

Former and current employees say shady dealings are customary in the BLM horse program. "The American public is being cheated out of millions of dollars a year," says Steven Sederwall, a BLM law-enforcement agent who retired last year. "In 23 years as a cop, I've never seen anything like the depth of corruption I've seen in the BLM."

Last month, Mr. Sederwall and five former colleagues sent a nine-page letter to US Attorney General Janet Reno, detailing "an ever-growing list of felony criminal violations committed by the Bureau of Land Management." Charges include BLM employees selling wild horses to slaughterhouses and rodeo circuits; falsified financial and horse inventory records; misappropriation of funds; and obstruction of justice during investigations.

Bureau officials say the accusations are unfounded. "The vast majority of these allegations are up to 15 years old. These are not things that are happening now," says Bob Johns, Washington spokesman for the BLM, a division of the Department of the Interior.

Walter Johnson, chief of law enforcement for the BLM, says he has seen no evidence to support the charges. "I am not aware of either myself or any member of my staff doing anything inappropriately, or involving any criminal action. I will not comment on anything unless it is firsthand knowledge to me."

But in a June 1993 memorandum to the Interior Department inspector general, Mr. Johnson wrote regarding a federal investigation in New Mexico: "Through the initial phase of the investigation, it is apparent that administrative actions by some BLM wranglers and program administrators have not been in compliance with the direction and guidance provided.... In many of the adoptions and group adoptions reviewed, personnel from BLM apparently promoted the adoption of horses for commercial gain."

Federal law prohibits the government from selling wild horses to slaughterhouses and other commercial operations. To keep herd size in check, the BLM is charged with rounding up 6,000 to 9,000 wild horses per year and offering them for adoption. Adopters are required to pay a $125 fee and wait one year before taking legal title to a horse. The provisions are intended to reduce the incidence of profit-motivated adoptions.

But sources inside the BLM say thousands of horses are taken illegally from rangelands each year. If money changes hands, it's strictly off the books. As for documented adoptions, sources say backdated paperwork is a common tactic to give adopters quicker title to a horse. …

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