You may remember a story that we did in February called "Wild Horses of the Flint Hills." It was a story of thousands of wild mustangs which were roaming almost free in vast ranches in the Flint Hills near Cassoday, Kansas. They originally came from the open ranges of the West and they were brought here because of over crowding. They are managed by the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
When we were there in February, the horses were all looking healthy--even a little plump. And now, 80 of them are dead.
"The horses had to be removed from a private ranch where they had been held for a number of years under contract. And that rancher elected not to renew his contract with the government," said Paul McGuire. "So BLM was obligated to remove those animals and find another home for them."
Paul McGuire is with the BLM based in Oklahoma City. Fourteen-hundred and ninety-three mares were moved--200 a day--on semis beginning in the middle of June.
"The first full-month report we had from the facilitator operator came at the end of July. And it was at that time that we saw numbers on the order of about 47 horses had either died or had to be put down during that time," said McGuire. "Those are the numbers that, when they came to BLM's attention, our leadership immediately dispatched a team to look into that and figure out what was going on and halt it."
But it didn't stop at 47. The horses continued to die in the corral. Some were too weak to get up and had to be euthanized. These are the same horses that had lived in the Flint Hills pasture for 14 years.
The feed lot in Scott City is a lot that is used to taking care of cattle and some bison, but not horses who are unaccustomed to being penned, traveling in semi-trucks in the summer, or eating from a bunk or trough.
Video of the Scott City feed lot courtesy of BLM.
"In a feed lot, the horses have to push their way to the bunk, and in some cases, compete for space," said McGuire. "You have situations of dominant horses maybe keeping more timid horses back. And that behavioral dynamic was found to have been what was really at play, or suspected to be what was the cause some of these horses not adapting well to that new environment."
The inspection team included a vet from the USDA, and though their findings are preliminary, the changes that they made include a different blend and portion of feed. But the shock of relocation and adjustments to the new home were determined to be the causes of death.
The mustangs began their lives as free roaming animals and have never been broken or gentled, ridden or been hitched to a cart. They like the humans who feed them in the winter--but that's about it. On the pasture there are many stands of trees, lakes, hills, and valleys. At the corral there is no shelter, no shade. The BLM found that heat has not been a factor. Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director of innovative wildlife management with the Humane Society of the United States disagrees.
"We have been stressing since last summer that the BLM has to provide shade for animals that are at a government holding facility--either a long-term holding facility or a short-term. Adopters are required to provide those animals with shade," said Boyles Griffin. "They're currently doing a study to see if shade is necessary at the Palomino Valley facility outside of Reno, NV, and we all said this is ridiculous. And again, it speaks to the need for a comprehensive animal welfare program. If they can't even make a decision to provide animals with shade without having doing a study, there's clearly a disconnect between the BLM and identifying just common basic needs of animals they hold in captive holding facilities."
Paul McGuire of the Bureau of Land Management says that the situation at the Scott City feed lot has stabilized, and that they are trying to secure pastures for the remaining mares.
The "Wild Horses of the Flint Hills" video was shot by Aileen LeBlanc in February 2014.
Originally Aired during All Things Considered on 08/27/2014