Laura Rauch/AP

Is the U.S. government complicit in killing over a thousand wild horses?

Lawmakers ask if the federally protected animals were slaughtered in Mexico.

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers is urging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to disclose whether as many as 1,700 federally protected wild horses now unaccounted for were sold to a middleman who illegally transported them to Mexico for slaughter.

Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., in a letter to Salazar being circulated this week to other lawmakers to cosign, write they are troubled by the department’s lack of response to “legitimate concerns” that the government may have sold these captured mustangs to a “kill buyer,” who then shipped them to a slaughterhouse.

“It is our understanding that this investigation is ongoing,” the letter states, referring to an inquiry by Interior’s Office of Inspector General. But it also says that a number of animal-welfare organizations and worried citizens have been raising concerns, and that “as of today, these citizens haven’t heard from you.”

Adam Sarvana, a spokesman for Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations, said the two lawmakers want Salazar to provide answers before he leaves the Obama administration. Salazar has said he will leave his Cabinet position at the end of March.

Tom Gorey, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman, said Monday that the inspector general has not yet released its findings and that “we don’t know when [the investigation] is going to be done.” But he said it would be wrong to suggest that the bureau sold any of these horses realizing they might be sent to slaughterhouses.

In their letter to Salazar, Grijalva and Whitfield point to a report last September by ProPublica that the bureau sold the more than 1,700 captured mustangs at about $10 a head to Tom Davis, described as a Colorado livestock hauler and a proponent of the horse-meat industry. Salazar is from Colorado and reportedly knows Davis.

“As you are aware, the ProPublica revelations have provoked a substantial public outcry,” the two lawmakers wrote. The letter notes, for example, that in November, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign delivered 25,130 signatures to the Interior Department “from concerned citizens around the country.”

The Bureau of Land Management is the federal agency in charge of overseeing the approximately 31,500 wild horses and 5,800 wild burros roaming federally managed range land in 10 Western states. According to the bureau’s website, these horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double about every four years. As a result, “the agency must remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control herd sizes,” the bureau says.

Since 2004, the bureau has had the legal right under an amendment passed by Congress to sell some of these wild horses.

But Gorey said that, despite the technically unrestricted sales authority of that legislation, known as the Burns Amendment, the bureau has not knowingly sold any of these horses or burros for slaughter and would not do so. He said the rules were tightened in April 2005 to require that the bills of sale contain an explanation by the buyer of what they intend to do with the animals, including a promise that animals bought will not be slaughtered.

Still, no public explanation has surfaced as to what, exactly, happened to the more than 1,700 horses purchased by Davis since 2009--nearly 70 percent of all the horses sold under the program. And animal welfare activists are worried that they wound up on the killing floor.

“We respectfully ask you to give a written response within the next ten days,” Grijalva and Whitfield wrote.

NEXT STORY: The perils of bypassing Congress

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