The Murderers Creek mustangs coexists with elk, antelope, mule deer, bighorn sheep, cougars and bears. They have been spotted at salt licks with deer, and one mare has been frequently observed running with a herd of Rocky Mountain elk.

Murderers Creek "timber horse” poised for flight. (Photo: USFS)

Murderers Creek “timber horse” poised for flight. (Photo: USFS)

They are small animals, about fourteen hands (or a little more than four feet tall at the shoulder), and usually bay or brown in color. The 250 horses in the herd tend to remain in an unusual area at elevations of 4,500 to 6,500 feet the year around, despite winter snows of up to 4 feet deep, using timber thickets for shelter during storms; a beautiful and remote area of tall Douglas firs and ponderosa pines, broken only periodically by meadows of bunchgrass.

They range across lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS), who are charged with allocating the rangeland to elk, deer, domestic cattle and other species, in addition to the mustangs.

The Murderers Creek herd. (Photo: BLM)

The Murderers Creek herd. (Photo: BLM)

Claiming that the increasing size of the herd is threatening wildlife habitat and salmon-steelhead streams, the BLM has proposed reducing the herd to just 50 horses, using a combination of helicopter “gathers” and bait trapping, and offering the “excess animals” to the general public for adoption.

After requesting comments on a Preliminary Environmental Assessment of its plan, the BLM received more than 6,000 emails and letters objecting.

Advocates of protecting and preserving wild horses and burros, say the murderer’s creek herd is a prime example of how federal managers across the west are accommodating cattle ranchers who view wild horses as stealing valuable forage from their livestock and threatening their livelihood, drastically reducing the number of horses while authorizing over 5 times that number of cattle to graze the same area. Nationally, private livestock exceed wild horses on BLM lands by at least 50-1.

Horse advocates say the solution to curbing the fertility problem is using a drug called PZP to humanely manage reproduction while accommodating present wild horse population numbers by reducing livestock grazing in the complex.

The issue of roundups and long-term holding of wild horses is a huge and growing problem throughout the west, with no resolution in sight. The BLM manages 37,300 free-roaming wild horses and burros on 27 million acres in 10 Western states. As a result of a policy of rounding up the animals, there are now nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros living in 18 long-term corrals and holding pastures which are at or near capacity.

In the face of high hay prices and falling demand for horse adoption due to the sluggish economy, it’s estimated that holding wild horses long-term is costing taxpayers roughly $475 per animal annually.

Wild horses in the Malheur National Forest. (Photo: Jeffrey Shinn, USFS)

Wild horses in the Malheur National Forest. (Photo: Jeffrey Shinn, USFS)

BLM Corral Facility in Hines, Oregon. (Photo: BLM)

BLM Corral Facility in Hines, Oregon. (Photo: BLM)

Congress effectively banned horse slaughter in 2006 when it eliminated funding for horse meat inspectors. Without inspections, slaughtering plants closed. The closures coincided with the economic downturn, leading to a dramatic rise in the number of unwanted and neglected horses, leaving rescue and rehabilitation facilities, including the BLM facilities, with limited capacity and funding. The result was an increase of 660 percent in the number of U.S.-origin horses transported to slaughter plants in Canada and Mexico.

Kill Buyers

The large number of animals in federal detention has also led to an increase in the number of “kill buyers,” who “adopt” wild horses for shipment to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses. A recent investigation by ProPublica revealed that since 2009 the BLM has sold nearly 2,000 wild horses to a known kill buyer in Colorado. Like all buyers, he signs contracts promising the animals will not be slaughtered. He insists he finds them good homes but refuses to provide records of the sales.

USDA vets have seen horses bearing the BLM brand in slaughter export pens, but there is no law prohibiting the transportation of horses from the U.S. into Mexico, and the agency has no authority to intervene once a horse has been sold.

Horse trucks at Eagle Pass Export Pens, US/Mexican border.

Horse trucks at Eagle Pass Export Pens, US/Mexican border.


Investigators monitoring export pens in the Texas border towns of Presidio and Eagle Pass owned by known kill buyers watch hundreds of horses each day arriving and departing with no regard given to those that are sick and injured on their way to Mexican slaughterhouses.

Critics say the BLM’s plan to impound hundreds more mustangs when its holding pens are already full demonstrates its lack of commitment to managing wild horses sustainably. As the number of wild horses captured and warehoused continues to grow it puts the mustangs in imminent danger of slaughter for the horsemeat industry. Equine advocates suspect that that may, in fact, be the BLM’s end game.

The saga continues as Congress last year lifted its ban on funding to the FDA for horsemeat inspections. Proposals for slaughterhouses have been made in several states.