LAS VEGAS - The owner of a sprawling ranch in northern Nevada has made a gruesome discovery -- the carcasses of eight wild horses gunned down near a watering hole.
The identity of the gunmen is not mystery though. The horses were shot multiple times by a federal agency -- the Bureau of Land Management. It's the latest skirmish in a running battle between BLM and advocates for wild horses.
Businesswoman Madeleine Pickens offered to take as many as 30,000 wild horses out of government pens and put them on her own 600,000 acre ranch in Elko County. That plan would save the government an estimated $100 million. But Elko County is cattle country so Pickens has faced opposition at every step.
What happened to these horses has been described as a massacre.
Pickens plans to create Mustang Monument as an ecosanctuary for wild horses and tourist attraction for Elko County have been opposed every step of the way by the BLM and by Elko County officials.
It is unlikely Pickens will ever re-open the resort for business, even after spending $25 million to improve the ranches, ranges, forage and water supplies. But she plans to always care for the hundreds of wild horses she saved from the slaughterhouse. In late August, bad went to worse.
"These dead horses had been shot. They had multiple wounds. They were shot in the back, in the bellies, everywhere. I was never notified of this," said Madeleine Pickens.
PHOTOS: Dead horses found on Pickens' property (WARNING: The photos are graphic.)
She flew to her ranch after BLM told her there was a problem at Boone Spring, a mountain top water source that was no longer operable. BLM claimed 300 mustangs were gathered around the spring and in bad shape. What they didn't tell Pickens is that they had already gunned down several horses, which had then been dragged into a pile and left to rot.
She only discovered the grisly carcasses by sending up her own drone. BLM then told her what they later told the I-Team, that eight horses were in such bad shape, they had to be "humanely euthanized."
BLM issued the following statement to the I-Team:
"The emergency gather was conducted because the wild horses were in distress due to lack of forage and water on the range. In preparing for the gather of the horses, whose overall health was in decline, the BLM found eight horses suffering from severe dehydration and starvation. These horses were euthanized, per BLM policy, because they had little to no prognosis for recovery. The horses were found in the Boone Springs area, which is within the Spruce-Pequops Herd Management area. The emergency gather went from August 28 through September 9."
"Euthanized? Is that what you call it? We saw how they were shot, all over their backs and bellies. It was the saddest thing I had ever seen. That broke me. It broke me in two," Pickens said.
Longtime wild horse advocate and U.S. Senate staffer Jerry Reynoldson, who has worked for Pickens at times, has seen BLM do some terrible things to mustangs, but nothing like this.
"Horses that are gut shot will suffer for extended periods of time. A horse who hit in the head will die a near immediate death. A horse gut shot will lay on the ground and throw its legs, kick its legs a long time and death will be very slow in coming There is nothing humane about this," Reynoldson said. "I never imagined we would reach a point where they could condone and go out and do this on their own and shoot horses in the guts."
Reynoldson wonders why BLM couldn't just round up the horses, as it has done hundreds of thousands of times in the last two years. BLM has stepped up its roundups of wild horses in the West, and nearly all are labeled as emergencies, which allows BLM to sidestep normal procedures. This particular emergency didn't need to happen.
For two years, Pickens has been asking BLM for permission to fix Boone Spring. She sought permission to fix the washed-out roads leading to the spring. BLM said no to both. When Pickens said she would pay for a helicopter to bring in water troughs, the answer was the same.
"I said you've got four troughs. How about you loan me one? I will take it up the mountain and fill it up there, and if you will let me bring in a helicopter, I'd pay, you pay, whatever. She says no, you may not touch one of these troughs. I don't care what you do here it is, an emergency. she's standing there. Throughout the whole conversation there appeared to be a tone of gotcha.
The I-Team wanted to ask the BLM why the horses were shot in the backs and stomachs, but multiple requests for an interview were denied.
Two years ago, someone sabotaged another part of Pickens' ranch. They disabled the water supply, then cut the fencing around a 13,000 acre enclosure. A dozen horses died and the rest of the herd scattered. And in another incident, Pickens paid to fix a site on public range, at the direction of the BLM, but ended up being hit with a massive fine.
She thinks the BLM wants to eventually take her land and repurpose it for cattle grazing.
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