I-Team: Wild Horses Forced into a Stampede of Death - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: Wild Horses Forced into a Stampede of Death

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    I-Team: BLM Wraps Up Huge Wild Horse Roundup

    I-Team: BLM Wraps Up Huge Wild Horse Roundup

    Friday, February 12 2010 2:29 PM EST2010-02-12 19:29:46 GMT
    One of the largest wild horse roundups in Nevada history is over. The Bureau of Land Management says it gathered more than 2,000 mustangs from the sprawling Calico Range in Northern Nevada, but that's far fewer than the agency expected to capture.More>>

A massive roundup of wild horses in Northern Nevada turned out to be one of the deadliest in the history of the wild horse program.

Contrary to assurances from the Bureau of Land Management, dozens of horses were killed during the Calico roundup. What's more, the horses are still dying inside government corrals because of injuries suffered during their frightening run across tough terrain.

American taxpayers shelled out close to $1 million to capture 1,900 horses on the Calico range, even though a federal judge told BLM it was a bad idea.

Millions more will be spent in roundups planned all year long by the BLM. Critics of the program ask, for what?

If a private citizen were to kill dozens wild horses, that person would go to prison. Yet the government has been killing mustangs for years, with the promise that it's all for the horses own good.

"We are the Bureau of Land Management -- not the Bureau of Wildlife, not the Bureau of Horses, not the Bureau of Cows. It's the land," said BLM District Manager Gene Seidlitz.

If BLM officials seem a bit testy these days, it's not hard to see why. The Calico roundup has galvanized public attention. A federal lawsuit tried to stop the roundup. More than 10,000 protest letters were generated. Demonstrations were staged across the country. But BLM went ahead with it anyway, even in the face of scattered threats that prompted the presence of armed security.

At a staging area in the town of Gerlach, BLM staffers told a group of visitors how the gather operation was, right before explaining that the whole thing was being conducted on private land, which allowed BLM to control who got to watch the gather, and when.

Everyone, reporters included, was escorted by helpful BLM Public Relations staffers who explained during the visit what was permissible as horses were captured and then herded into trailers.

At the other end of the operation is the Broken Arrow Holding Facility in Fallon, the place where all of the Calico horses were sent. It too is on private land, meaning access can be strictly controlled.

There are no windbreaks and no coverings. The horses have no protection from the wind and cold, not even the one's born in the corral.

The real danger, from a public relations standpoint, is that visitors might record video like this -- an older mare, hobbled during the roundup, tries again and again to stand, but can't. It finally gives up. A BLM staffer suggested the photographer should stop shooting.

Even more emotional was an incident involving an 8-month-old colt. Like 1,900 other horses, it had been herded by helicopter over miles of rough terrain. In the corral, it could barely stand because of what the vet called hoof trauma. Basically, the hooves fell off, and despite efforts to save the horse, it was euthanized after several agonizing days.

"That's unfortunate, but the percentage that died due to the gather itself and not affiliated with Fallon is still a low percentage," said Seidlitz.

BLM admits there will always be some risk to mustangs during a gather. After all, they are chased by helicopter over many miles.

Calico is covered with sharp volcanic rock -- tough on hooves and legs of galloping horses, especially during the dead of winter when rocks are covered with snow.

Sedlitz said the snow would cushion the impact for the horses, though a federal court advised a winter roundup could be deadly. The court was right.

BLM typically expects a death rate of up to .5, or one half of one percent. As of Friday morning 48 of the Calico horses had died, another 30 foals aborted after pregnant mares were hunted across miles of rangeland. This is a loss rate of 4-percent, more than eight times what BLM expected.

BLM says nearly all of those deaths were the result of the horses being in poor shape when they came in. Yet at the corrals in Fallon, there is clear evidence of otherwise healthy horses suffering with leg injuries.

BLM has painted a picture of the Calico horses as thin, sickly, starving, but even the untrained eye sees horses that mostly look strong and healthy.

John O'Neill, the manager at Fallon agreed. "There has been a very small percentage that are on a scale of about two on our body condition scale."

In spite of the winter conditions, and the fact they live in a harsh, sparse region to begin with, the overwhelming percentage of the horses the I-Team saw were not in bad shape. Yet BLM gathered them all under the premise they might be worse off in the summer.

Critics note that mustangs are wild animals and aren't supposed to all look like show horses.

"We do have some reports that some have been thin -- some very thin -- but some good," said Seidlitz.

BLM was to begin its next roundup this week in Eastern Nevada, but after another lawsuit was filed in federal court to stop it, it was canceled. BLM said it did not want to start a roundup during foaling season because that would cause a lot of lost foals.

Critics of the program say this is a weak excuse since BLM it's always foaling season -- horses give birth all year long.

The one thing that is always consistent about BLM is its inconsistency, which is why so many Americans simply do not trust anything that is said about wild horses.

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