When outsiders think of the American West, they probably think of mustangs.
The horses’ ancestors were brought to the New World by conquistadors more than five centuries ago and nowadays, thousands of wild horses roam the Mountain West – especially in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada.
According to the federal government, some of those herds are getting too big.
“That creates conditions that are unsafe and unhealthy for the animals. Not to mention the conditions of the land,” said Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Heather Feeney.
Her agency is in charge of managing wild horses. Every year they round some up for adoption or sale.
Feeney is quick to point out that it’s illegal to buy these animals from the feds and then sell them to slaughterhouses.
“There are criminal penalties for violating the terms and conditions and responsibilities that a person signs on for when they purchase the animal,” she said.
But a few years ago, a Colorado man did just that. Journalists discovered he bought more than 1,700 wild horses from the BLM and then sent them to slaughter in Mexico.
A federal watchdog group later affirmed those findings, and the Obama administration put a new rule in place to prevent that from happening again.
It limited the number of wild horses that could be sold to a single buyer before they would need special approval.
They could only buy four at a time. But now, the Trump administration is increasing that cap and allowing people to buy up to 24.
“They’re going back to selling truckloads of horses,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign. “It’s creating a great financial incentive to turn around and sell those horses for slaughter.”
Roy said the Obama-era cap was important because there’s a loophole when it comes to selling wild horses for slaughter.
Essentially, when you buy one from the federal government, you sign a contract saying you would never knowingly sell that horse to someone who would slaughter it.
“The ‘knowingly’ is the loophole,” Roy said. “Somebody can say, ‘Oh yeah, I sold that to my neighbor, Jack. I had no idea he was gonna sell them to slaughter.’ And it’s very hard to disprove that.”
Still, BLM spokesperson Heather Feeney said that kind of situation is rare.
“I wouldn’t even say ‘occasional,’” she said. “There have been very few.”
She says most groups who buy wild horses include government agencies, riding associations and horse trainers. According to Feeney, the BLM needs to sell more wild horses because the market for adoption has changed.
“We’ve seen a reduction in the number of people who are interested and able to properly adopt a wild horse,” she said. “So we have this imbalance on the public rangelands where the wild horses live and roam.”
Selling those horses, according to Feeney, helps return balance to the rangelands.
The new ruling took effect this spring. Both the federal government and the state declined to file charges against the Colorado man who sold thousands of horses for slaughter.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.