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US vows to improve protections for wild horse adoptions

In this March 10, 2021, file photo, Salt River wild horses eat hay at a site for emergency feeding run by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group near Coon Bluff in the Tonto National Forest near Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- U.S. officials who are trying to adopt out wild horses captured on public land say they are tightening protections to guard against the illegal resale of the animals for slaughter, but advocates say the government needs to do more, including ending incentive payments for adoptions.

    The Bureau of Land Management is committed to the health and safety of adopted mustangs and burros, its deputy director for programs, Nada Wolff Culver, said in announcing the changes Monday.

    "We will begin to make additional compliance visits post-adoption, bring more scrutiny to potential adopters and increase warnings to sale barns about the risks of illegally selling wild horses and burros, among other steps," she said.

    Advocates said they have documented the reselling of horses for slaughter for nearly a decade and that it won't stop until the agency ends the $1,000 payments it has offered in recent years to try to jump-start lagging demand at overstocked holding pens.

    The bureau estimates there are about 86,000 horses and burros on the range in 10 Western states, about half of those in Nevada. It says that's three times as many as public lands can sustain, which horse advocates dispute.

    About 50,000 wild horses and burros are in government holding facilities. The bureau said it has placed more than 8,000 in adoptive homes since March 2019, for a total of more than 270,000 over the life of the decades-old program.

    Adopters already must certify "under penalty of prosecution" that they will not knowingly sell or transfer the animals for slaughter or for processing into commercial products, Culver said.

    The land agency intends to improve screening of adoption applicants and inspect animals within six months of adoption, instead of the current 12 months, she said.

    Veterinarians will have to certify all applications in order for adopters to receive the $1,000 incentive. The bureau also will post more warning notices at 750 livestock sale facilities and review other potential changes to federal regulations.

    The government also prohibits someone from adopting more than four animals within a 12-month period and bans transfer of ownership for at least 12 months after the adoption date, Culver said.

    Animal advocates say removing the animals from the open range is driven by pressure from ranchers who don't want the free-roaming horses competing with their livestock for forage.

    They insist the mustangs should remain in the wild and that the adoption incentive money would be better spent on horse fertility controls, like darting mares with contraceptive drugs. They have been pressing for an independent investigation of past abuses in the adoption program.

    The Coalition for Healthy Nevada Lands, Wildlife and Free Roaming Horses said Tuesday it "strongly supports" the newly announced safeguards.

    The group that describes itself as a coalition of conservationists and wildlife and range management professionals says the agency's move will help sustain ecological functions that provide resources for wildlife, free-roaming horses and livestock.

    National horse protection groups were more skeptical.

    The changes the bureau "is vowing to implement will be rendered meaningless without the elimination of the cash incentives for the adoption of untamed, wild mustangs and burros," said Grace Kuhn, communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign. "These federally protected animals will continue to be shipped to slaughter."

    Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation, said the agency should replace cash with vouchers for adopters who present receipts for training or veterinary care.

    "We're glad that BLM is listening to the public's concerns, but we're disappointed because this still falls short of the outside investigation that we want to see happen," she said.

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