The Bureau of Land Management faced a crisis this spring.
The agency protects and manages herds of wild horses that still roam the American West, rounding up thousands of them each year to keep populations stable.
But by March, government pens and pastures were nearly full. Efforts to find new storage space had fallen flat. So had most attempts to persuade members of the public to adopt horses. Without a way to relieve the pressure, the agency faced a gridlock that would invite lawsuits and potentially cause long-term damage to the range.
So the BLM did something it has done increasingly over the last few years. It turned to a little-known Colorado livestock hauler named Tom Davis who was willing to buy hundreds of horses at a time, sight unseen, for $10 a head.
The BLM has sold Davis at least 1,700 wild horses and burros since 2009, agency records show -- 70 percent of the animals purchased through its sale program.
Like all buyers, Davis signs contracts promising that animals bought from the program will not be slaughtered and insists he finds them good homes.
But Davis is a longtime advocate of horse slaughter. By his own account, he has ducked Colorado law to move animals across state lines and will not say where they end up. He continues to buy wild horses for slaughter from Indian reservations, which are not protected by the same laws. And since 2010, he has been seeking investors for a slaughterhouse of his own.
"Hell, some of the finest meat you will ever eat is a fat yearling colt," he said. "What is wrong with taking all those BLM horses they got all fat and shiny and setting up a kill plant?"
Animal welfare advocates fear that horses bought by Davis are being sent to the killing floor.
"The BLM says it protects wild horses," said Laura Leigh, founder of the Nevada-based advocacy group Wild Horse Education, "but when they are selling to a guy like this you have to wonder."
BLM officials say they carefully screen buyers and are adamant that no wild horses ever go to slaughter.
"We don't feel compelled to sell to anybody we don't feel good about," agency spokesman Tom Gorey said. "We want the horses to be protected."
Sally Spencer, who runs the wild horse sales program, said the agency has had no indication of problems with Davis and it would be unfair for the BLM to look more closely at him based on the volume of his purchases.
"It is no good to just stir up rumors," she said. "We have never heard of him not being able to find homes. So people are innocent until proven guilty in the United States."
Some BLM employees say privately that wild horse program officials may not want to look too closely at Davis. The agency has more wild horses than it knows what to do with, they say, and Davis has become a relief valve for a federal program plagued by conflict and cost over-runs.
"They are under a lot of pressure in Washington to make numbers," said a BLM corral manager who did not want his name used because he feared retribution from the agency's national office. "Maybe that is what this is about. They probably don't want to look too careful at this guy."
Wild horses embody the mythic West: Painted Indian war ponies and the cavalry mounts that chased them, pony express runners and the tough partners of cowboys.
At the turn of the 20th Century, they numbered in the millions, but most were rounded up, slaughtered, and used for pet food or fertilizer, until by 1970, there were only 17,000 left.
In 1971, Congress stepped in to save the remaining herds, passing a law that declared wild horses "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" and made it a crime for anyone to harass or kill wild horses on most federal land. The law tasked the departments of Interior and Agriculture with protecting the animals still roaming the range.
In a sense, the Bureau of Land Management -- the part of the Interior Department assigned to oversee the wild horse program -- succeeded in this a bit too well. Protected horses naturally began to reproduce and by 1983 there were an estimated 65,000 horses and burros on the range, competing for resources with cattle and native wildlife.
In the name of maintaining a sustainable balance, the BLM began removing horses from the wild. It now rounds up about 9,400 horses a year, which has kept the wild population at around 35,000.
The captured horses are put up for adoption. Almost anyone can have one for as little as $125 as long as they sign a contract promising not to sell it to slaughter.
Adoptions kept pace with round ups until investigations in the late 1980s and 1990s showed that many adopters, including several BLM employees, had turned a quick profit by selling the horses to slaughterhouses. To discourage such re-sales, the BLM began holding the title of sale for a year. Today the agency says it visits almost every adopter for a "compliance check" within six months to make sure horses are well cared for.
The restrictions protected horses, but discouraged adoptions, a trend compounded more recently by a bad economy and soaring hay prices.
Today, only one in three captured horses finds a home. The rest go into a warren of tax payer-funded corrals, feed lots and pastures collectively known as "the holding system." Since horses often live 20 years after being captured, the holding population has grown steadily for decades from 1,600 in 1989 to more than 47,000. There are now more wild horses living in captivity than in the wild.
For decades, government auditors and wild horse welfare advocates have warned that the policy of capturing and storing horses is unsustainable and have pushed for the BLM to use fertility controls, introduce predators or expand wild horse territories, but the agency has made little progress toward these goals. In the first half of this year, for example, it treated fewer than half as many wild horses with a birth control drug than was planned.
"I think they are caught in an old way of doing things," said John Turner, an endocrinologist at University of Toledo who specializes in wild horse fertility control. "Once they round up the horses, I don't think they like to treat and release. They would rather remove them."
Driven by the cost of caring for unwanted wild horses, the annual price tag of the program has ballooned from $16 million in 1989 to $76 million today.
Cost pressures prompted Congress to pass a last-minute rider to a 2004 law directing the BLM to sell thousands of old or unadoptable wild horses for $10 a head without restrictions -- even for slaughter -- but the agency has not done so, fearing public outrage.
Instead, since then, the BLM has been selling horses, but requiring buyers to sign contracts saying they will "not knowingly sell or transfer ownership of any listed wild horse and or burro to any person or organization with an intention to resell, trade, or give away the animal for processing into commercial products." Violating the agreement is a felony, but there are no compliance checks similar to those done when horses are adopted.
Even when priced at less than a few bales of hay, these horses had little appeal: Sales dropped from 1,468 in 2005 to 351 in 2008.
To explore other options for reducing the number of horses in holding, top BLM officials gathered for weekly closed-door meetings from July to October 2008. According to meeting minutes obtained by the Conquistador Equine Rescue & Advocacy Program, they considered selling thousands of animals for slaughter and even large-scale euthanasia, but concluded such actions would enrage animal-welfare activists to the point they might "threaten the safety of our facilities and our employees."
No clear plan emerged.
As the wild horse program's situation grew increasingly dire, a new option came knocking: Tom Davis.
Davis, 64, a plain-spoken man with a sun-beaten brow, makes his living hauling livestock, but says reselling wild horses now accounts for a substantial part of his income.
By his own account, he has worked around horses all his life -- on racetracks, on ranches, and even rounding up wild horses for slaughter before the 1971 law put a stop to the practice.
For most of that time, he has lived in the tiny town of La Jara, in Colorado's mountain-ringed San Luis Valley, just down the road from Ken Salazar, the former U.S. Senator who now heads the Department of the Interior.
"When my dad was alive we farmed their land," Davis said of the Salazar family. "I like them. I do business with them. I do quite a bit of trucking for Ken."
(Salazar did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.)
On a warm morning in May, Davis gave a rambling two-hour interview on the 13-acre spread of corrals and truck lots where he lives.
Leaning against the fence of a muddy corral where a half dozen horses nibbled hay, wearing dusty overalls, Davis gave a simple reason for becoming the BLM's main buyer.
"I love wild horses to death," he said. "It's like an addiction. For some it's drugs, for me it's horses."
According to BLM records, Davis first contacted the program in January 2008. Documents obtained from the agency show he filled out the application to become a buyer over the phone, aided by Spencer, the BLM's sales director, who wrote in his answers to questions on the form. (A BLM spokesman said in an email that agency employees often did this in the program's early days, but no longer do.)
Under a question concerning Davis' intended use of the animals, Spencer wrote "use for movies." He later told other BLM employees he sold the horses to Mexican movie companies to use on film shoots.
Under a question about what type of horses Davis preferred, the application noted he would take males or females, so long as they were big.
At the bottom of the application, Spencer wrote that she and Davis had "Discussed goal of providing a good home and making sure none of the horses end up at slaughter plants." A few weeks later, the BLM sent Davis 36 wild horses from its Cañon City, Colo., holding corral.
That was the only load the BLM sent Davis in 2008, records show. But in 2009 -- a few months after the meetings about the holding crisis and two weeks after Salazar became head of the Interior Department -- the agency started sending him truckload after truckload, from all over the West. Soon he was by far their biggest customer.
Davis bought 560 horses in 2009, another 332 animals in 2010, 599 more in 2011, and 239 in the first four months of 2012, agency records show. While most BLM buyers purchase one or two horses at a time, Davis averages 35 per purchase and has bought up to 240 at a time.
The animals came from the mountains of California and Wyoming, the mesas of Colorado and Utah, and the deserts of Nevada and Oregon. Many had lived for decades in the wild: Mature band stallions and resilient mares of every color descended from the first American horses.
Davis has paid the BLM a total of $17,630 for the animals, far less than BLM has expended to provide them – the agency estimates it costs $1,000 to roundup a wild horse and records show it has paid as much as $5,000 per truckload to ship them to Davis. Similar horses that are not acquired from the BLM and can legally be sold for slaughter fetch $300,000 to $600,000 on the open market, according to sales prices from regional livestock auctions.
Some BLM corral managers said in interviews they felt uneasy shipping so many horses to a single buyer, and one they knew so little about, but said such decisions weren't up to them.
"That all happens in Washington," one said, echoing the comments of many. "We are just peons. We do what we are told."
Davis said BLM employees occasionally asked where his horses ended up, but said he tells them it's "none of your damn business."
"They never question me too hard. It makes 'em look good if they're movin' these horses, see?" he said. "Every horse I take from them saves them a lot of money. I'm doing them a favor. I'm doing the American people a favor."
So what happened to the wild horses Davis purchased from the BLM?
The agency can't say for sure. It does not hold onto the titles of wild horses acquired through its sale program as it does with horses that are adopted. Officials also have no process for following up to make sure buyers use animals as they claim they will in applications.
In the interview at the ranch, Davis said he had found most of the mustangs "good homes" on properties mostly in the southeastern states. Asked if he would provide records of these sales, he responded, "Ain't no way in hell."
Other people who find homes for rescue horses in the region say they rely heavily on advertising and web sites to connect with buyers. Davis does not appear to do so.
"I've never heard of him," said David Hesse, who runs Mustang and Wild Horse Rescue of Georgia. "If he said he is finding homes for that many old, untamed mustangs, I'm skeptical. The market is deader than dead. I have trouble finding homes for even the ones that are saddle-broken. Wild ones? No way."
On some sales applications, Davis has said he sells horses to graze on land used for oil and gas drilling in Texas, but oil industry experts contacted for this story said they had never heard of such a practice.
According to brand inspection documents required by Colorado when livestock is sold or shipped more than 75 miles, Davis and his wife say they have sent 765 animals with BLM wild horse brands to a sparsely populated stretch of arid brush country along the Mexico border in Kinney County, Texas. (The records do not give specific addresses where animals were sent, but identify small towns, such as Spofford, as their destination.)
It's impossible to confirm that the horses actually arrived there or to know where they might have gone next, however, because Texas is one of the few Western states that do not require brand inspections when horses are moved or sold.
Just south of Kinney County is Eagle Pass, a border town that isthe only crossing for horses going to slaughter in Mexico for hundreds of miles.
There have been no horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. since 2007, when Congress barred funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture horse meat inspectors. Since then horse slaughter has been outsourced. A 2011 report by the General Accountability Office found the export of horses for slaughter to Mexico shot up 660 percent after the ban.
In Eagle Pass, as at other crossings, slaughter horses are checked by USDA veterinarians. A USDA spokeswoman refused to make veterinarians available for interviews, but confirmed that vets sometimes see wild horses bearing the BLM brand in slaughter export pens.
Brand documents leave almost 1,000 of Davis's wild horses unaccounted for. That means they should still be within 75 miles of his residence — if he has complied with state law.
Asked if this was the case, Davis first said the horses were still on 160 acres of land he leases from the state of Colorado. Then he said some had been shipped out of state without brand inspections, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"Since when is anything in this country done legal?" Davis said in a phone interview.
Had BLM officials inquired further about Davis, they might have found reason to question his plans for wild horses.
Davis is a vocal proponent of slaughtering wild horses in the holding system, which he considers a waste of resources. During the interview at his home, he said he would purchase far more horses if the BLM allowed him to resell them to so-called "kill buyers."
"They are selling me mere hundreds now," he said. "If they sold me 50,000, I guarantee I could do something with them. I would go to Canada. I would go to Mexico."
Davis has close friends who export horses for slaughter, including Dennis Chavez, whose family runs one of largest export businesses in the southwest. In 1984, when Davis authored "Be Tough or be Gone," a self-published book about a horseback ride he took from Mexico to Alaska, he dedicated it to Chavez's father, Sonny Chavez.
Also, despite the obstacles that impede U.S. horse slaughterhouses, Davis said he has been trying to drum up investors to open a slaughter plant in Colorado.
He said he had approached pet food companies to buy the meat and asked Ken Salazar's brother, John Salazar, who is the head of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, to help him get a grant to finance the business. John Salazar declined to help Davis, and so far the slaughterhouse venture has not gone forward.
"How can the BLM say with a straight face they are protecting wild horses when they deal with this guy?" said Leigh, of Wild Horse Education.
Animal welfare advocates have raised concerns about Davis' purchases, but they say federal officials paid little attention.
In late 2010, the BLM rounded up 255 horses in the Adobe Town wild horse area in Wyoming. A local loose knit group of advocates had been photographing the herd for years. After the round-up, group members called BLM officials, looking to adopt a few of the animals, particularly an old stallion they had named Grey Beard.
They were told that the horses had been claimed by an anonymous buyer who planned to resell them to large landowners looking for agricultural tax exemptions. The advocates tried to learn more about the buyer, but Spencer refused to give his name, citing privacy policies.
According to interviews and agency emails, group members told Spencer that anyone buying that many horses at once had to be a kill buyer.
Sandra Longley, one of the advocates, said in an email to another advocate that Spencer had assured her that the buyer in question had a long relationship with the BLM and was "above reproach."
A BLM spokesman said Spencer did not recall the conversation.
According to BLM records, most of the horses were sold to Davis.
Warnings from advocates about Davis do not appear to have prompted the BLM to reconsider selling to him.In fact, internal agency email shows that officials actively turned to Davis to absorb freshly rounded-up horses so they wouldn't end up in the overloaded holding system.
In January, the manager of the agency's corral in Burns, Ore., emailed superiors in Washington, D.C., to ask what to do with 29 mares, almost all of which were pregnant. Spencer replied that Davis would take them.
In March, a corral manager emailed Spencer to say he had 92 "nice horses" just rounded up in High Rock, Calif., and to ask if Davis could take some of the geldings.
A day later Spencer replied, "Davis told me that if the geldings are in good shape he will be able to place them into good homes."
"How many would Mr. Davis want to buy?" the corral manager asked Spencer. "And are there any specifics that he is looking for?"
"He said he'd be interested in all of them, no specifics," Spencer replied.
Spencer said in an interview she is under no pressure to approve buyers with questionable backgrounds and feels confident that "we do not sell to people we feel are going to do bad things to the horses."
When asked about Davis, she said he had been thoroughly checked out and she had confidence in him. More generally, she said that if there were problems with a buyer, she would know.
"People watch where our horses go and the brands are very distinctive," she said. "If things were going on, we would get a call."
Davis' most recent purchase was in April, when he bought 106 animals. Since then, the agency may have opened an inquiry into what he has done with horses bought from the BLM. In June, an agency investigator contacted this reporter seeking information about him. This month, however, the BLM assistant special investigator in Santa Fe (the contact supplied by the agency on this matter) said he was "unable to confirm or deny" that the BLM is investigating Davis.
Animal welfare advocates say the agency's reliance on Davis is just another indication of how the wild horse program and its overburdened holding system have been mismanaged.
"He is just a symptom of the train wreck that is the Wild Horse and Burro program," said Ginger Kathrens, director of the horse advocacy group The Cloud Foundation, based in Colorado Springs. "They just warehouse more and more horses and create their own crisis. Then, after they run the program into the ground, they have to find ways out of it. It is a whole unnatural ridiculous system run amok. And who pays the ultimate price? Wild horses."
View this story on ProPublica.