In a lifetime of working with horses, Gary Kidd, 73, had never adopted an untrained wild mustang before. But when the federal government started paying people $1,000 a horse to adopt them, he signed up for as many as he could get. So did his wife, two grown daughters and a son-in-law.
Mr. Kidd, who owns a small farm near Hope, Ark., said in a recent telephone interview that he was using the mustangs, which are protected under federal law, to breed colts and that they were happily eating green grass in his pasture.
In fact, by the time he spoke on the phone, the animals were long gone. Records show that Mr. Kidd had sold them almost as soon as he legally could. He and his family received at least $20,000, and the mustangs ended up at a dusty Texas livestock auction frequented by slaughterhouse brokers known as kill buyers.
When asked about the sale, Mr. Kidd abruptly hung up.
The Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of caring for the nation’s wild horses, created the $1,000-a-head Adoption Incentive Program in 2019 because it wanted to move a huge surplus of mustangs and burros out of government corrals and find them “good homes.” Thousands of first-time adopters signed up, and the bureau hailed the program as a success.
But records show that instead of going to good homes, truckloads of horses were dumped at slaughter auctions as soon as their adopters got the federal money. A program intended to protect wild horses was instead subsidizing their path to destruction.
“This is the government laundering horses,” said Brieanah Schwartz, a lawyer for the advocacy group American Wild Horse Campaign, which has tracked the program. “They call it adoptions, knowing the horses are going to slaughter. But this way the B.L.M. won’t get its fingerprints on it.”
The bureau denies the allegations, noting that the government requires all adopters to sign affidavits promising not to resell the horses to slaughterhouses or their middlemen. But a spokesman said the bureau had no authority to enforce those agreements or to track the horses once adopters have title to them.
People who dump mustangs at auctions, the spokesman said, are free to adopt and get paid again.
It has been 50 years since Congress unanimously passed a law meant to protect wild horses and burros from wholesale roundup and slaughter and to ensure that they have a permanent, sustainable place on public land in the West. But decades of missteps, systemic problems and spiraling costs have put both the horses and the western landscape at risk.
Wild horses once roamed North America in the millions, but as the open range disappeared in the early 20th century, they were nearly all hunted down and turned into fertilizer and dog food. When they were finally protected in 1971, there were fewer than 20,000 left.
Once protected, though, the remnant herds started growing again — far faster than the government was prepared for. The bureau estimates that, left alone, wild horse herds increase by about 20 percent a year.
The bureau has tried for decades to stabilize numbers by using helicopters to round up thousands of mustangs annually. But the bureau has never been able to find enough people willing to adopt the untamed broncos it removes. So surplus mustangs — about 3,500 a year — have gone instead into a network of government storage pastures and corrals known as the holding system,
There are now more than 51,000 animals in holding, eating up so much of the program’s budget — about $60 million a year — that the bureau has little left to manage mustangs in the wild.
“It’s completely unsustainable,” said Terry Messmer, a professor of wildlife resources at Utah State University who has studied the program history. “I don’t think anyone who passed this law would be happy with how things turned out 50 years later.”
The bureau declined to comment on the record for this article.
Bureau leaders have repeatedly proposed culling the storage herds, but they have always been blocked by lawmakers mindful that a vast majority of voters do not want symbols of their heritage turned into cuts of meat.
Enter the Adoption Incentive Program, which is built on the idea that paying adopters $1,000 a head is far cheaper than the $24,000 average lifetime cost of keeping a horse in government hands.
The program nearly doubled the number of horses leaving the holding system, and the bureau called it “a win for all involved” that was helping “animals find homes with families who will care for and enjoy them for years to come.”
The bureau’s once-sleepy adoption events were transformed. “It became a feeding frenzy — I have never seen anything like it,” said Carol Walker, a photographer who documents the wild herds of Wyoming.
In February, she arrived at an event in Rock Springs, Wyo., and found a line of trailers a half-mile long. When the gates opened, people rushed to sign up for adoptions without even inspecting the mustangs.
“Those people weren’t there because they cared about the horses,” Ms. Walker said. “They were there because they cared about the money.”
To be sure, tens of thousands of wild horses have been adopted over the years by people who kept and cared for them as the law intended. Some became ranch horses, some work with the Border Patrol, and one became a world champion in dressage.
But the adoption program has hardly been selective. One man in Oklahoma was paid to take horses even though he had previously gone to prison for kidnapping and beating two men during a horse-slaughter deal gone bad.
The program has rules meant to discourage quick-buck seekers. Adopters are limited to four animals a year and do not get full payment or title papers for 12 months.
Even so, records show several instances where families like the Kidds banded together to get more than four horses. And numerous mustangs bearing the distinctive government brand began showing up at slaughter auctions after the one-year wait was up.
“We used to see one or two mustangs occasionally, usually old ones that someone had owned for years, but suddenly the floodgates opened,” said Clare Staples, who founded a wild horse sanctuary in Oregon called Skydog Ranch.
Ms. Staples said she had helped find homes for more than 20 adopted mustangs that were dumped at auctions, apparently after having been given little care. Many were emaciated, with unkempt manes and untrimmed hooves, she said, and they often had parasites.
The bureau has refused to provide lists of adopters. But an informal network of wild-horse advocates has pieced together what is happening by using donated money to outbid kill buyers at auctions. That way, they spare mustangs from slaughter and obtain title papers that detail the horses’ ownership history.
The papers show that many adopters who quickly resell live in stretches of the Great Plains where pasture is cheap and people often derive a living from several sources. These adopters often took the maximum number of horses and sent them to auction soon after their final government payments cleared.
Lonnie Krause, a rancher in Bison, S.D., adopted four horses in 2019, and so did his grandson. In an interview, he said he saw nothing wrong with sending the mustangs to auction and acknowledged that they would probably go to kill buyers.
“It’s economics,” he said. “I can make about $800 putting a calf on my land for a year. With the horses, I made $1,000, then turned around and sold them for $500.”
Mr. Krause said bureau employees had told him he wasn’t breaking any rules. “Once you get title, they told me, there is no limitation — you can do whatever you want with them,” he said.
Getting mustangs out of storage is critical for the bureau because its wild horse program is now in a crisis. The cost of storing horses has cannibalized the helicopter budget, and roundups can no longer keep pace with growing herds. There are now about 100,000 wild horses in the West — triple what the bureau says the land can support. If left unchecked, in another decade they could number 500,000.
Managers warn that the growing herds could graze public lands down to dirt, which would devastate cattle ranchers who compete for grass, and harm delicate desert landscapes and native species.
For decades government auditors and scientific advisers have warned the bureau to move away from roundups and instead control populations on the range through fertility control drugs delivered by dart and other management tools that don’t add horses to the holding system, but the bureau has never changed course, in part because the cost of storing horses has crippled its ability to do anything else.
“We are at a make-or-break point,” said Celeste Carlisle, a member of the wild horse program’s citizen advisory board and a biologist for a wild horse sanctuary called Return to Freedom, which has pushed for alternatives to roundups. “We have to turn things around, or it will result in disaster.”
At the kill-buyer auctions, people who love wild horses are scrambling to respond.
One night last fall, Candace Ray, who lives near Dallas, was clicking through photos on the website of a nearby auction when she spotted 24 young, untamed mustangs. Within hours she was rallying hundreds of donors on Facebook.
Ms. Ray cajoled a young couple who give riding lessons on their nearby farm, Cody and Shawnee Barham, to drive to the auction and do the bidding.
The mustangs were all small and skittish. None had apparently ever been handled. Serial numbers branded on their necks showed they had been born free in Nevada, Utah or New Mexico.
The Barhams kept bidding for hours. By midnight they had spent $16,000 in donations and owned 24 horses. When they got the title papers, the names of the adopters who sold the horses had been blacked out with marker. But holding the papers up to a light revealed the names and addresses of the Kidd family.
The Barhams brought the mustangs to their farm, opened the trailer doors and let them run. The couple plans to train them to accept a halter and then find people who will give them “forever homes.”
Cody Barham stood one recent morning watching the herd nibble in one of his fields, a grease-stained John Deere hat on his head and a 9-millimeter pistol on his hip (for snakes). He watched his wife walk quietly into the pasture with her outstretched hand holding a horse cookie. One of the braver mustangs, a little black stallion, approached to sniff.
“Our goal is to get them to the point where you can just love up on ’em,” he said. “But after all they’ve been through, it might take them a while to trust people.”