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Foals killed, aborted and orphaned at Sheldon Wildlife Refuge

Sheldon Fish and Wildlife Service Runs Foals to Exhaustion
and Leaves them to Die in the Desert.
A foal tries to keep up with its dam during a helicopter pass.
Several never made it to the trap corrals.

27 June, 2006
By: Valerie James Patton, Susan Pohlman, and John Holland

On June 6th, the Special Research Group exposed a plan formulated by the Fish and Wildlife Service to eliminate the Sheldon range wild horses and pay “mass adopters” $300 a horse to take them. The report showed that one of the adopters was operating out of a stockyard used almost exclusively as a transshipment point for horses going to slaughter. The report went on to denounce the plans of FWS to hold a helicopter gather in mid-June which is the height of foaling season in that region.

The Fish and Wildlife Service responded to the massive public outcry, which included congressmen and even California Governor Schwarzenegger, by giving false assurances to all who inquired. Among other falsehoods, they stated that the foaling season was long over and that all the foals were at least three months old. Project manager Paul Steblein assured the public that they had done a helicopter survey and found all the foals in the refuge were at least three or four months old. The impossibility of such an assessment from the air was not lost on the horse advocates nor was the biological improbability. Their doubts and worst fears were soon to be justified.

Realizing that the gather could be a tremendous public relations debacle, the FWS took extra precautions. These were not precautions to assure the safety of the foals, but precautions to assure that their fate would never be known. New gates were added, armed law enforcement agents were posted, and the public was kept back two miles from the holding pens. Then, a few concerned citizens were allowed just enough of a carefully staged view of the captured horses to lend credence to the assertions of the Fish and Wildlife Service. It was masterful stage craft to cover institutionalized callousness and cruelty of breathtaking dimensions.

The gather, was done on Tuesday, June 20th. Immediately after the gather, FWS announced that all the foals had arrived with their mothers, and that none had been hurt. But almost immediately, a foal was trampled in the pens and had to be taken away for medical care. The assertion that all of the foals had arrived safely with their mothers was belied by the fact that 16 to 18 of the mares showed signs of recently giving birth but had no foals with them.

FWS went on to say that only one adult horse had a minor injury. But there were horse advocates who knew better because they had listened to the radio communications between the FWS and the crews in the field as they discussed what to do with a horse with a broken leg. The decision had been made to shoot it.

The lies had only begun. The story of the lost foals began unfolding even as FWS personnel were busily cleaning up a stream of aborted foals from the mares in the holding pens. By Monday, the 26th, nine foals had either died at birth or been aborted in the pens, but there was worse news to come.

Thursday, stories began trickling into the Sheldon office of foals abandoned on the refuge and dying of exposure and dehydration. A rescue mission was launched on Friday. The Catoor’s helicopter returned to the puzzlement of some uninformed onlookers, and an air ground search was made. To some it was a mission to rescue the foals, but to FWS it was more likely a mission to rescue the illusion of their humane gather. According to reports, by the end of the day, eight foals had been found. Five were dead and three were clinging onto life. It is reported that Fran Steffan (Forever Free Mustangs) took these foals to get veterinary care and that they are expected to recover.

As if all of this were not damning enough, the FWS announced that they are still planning to give Gary Graham, the agent that operates out of a slaughter yard, “a few” horses. “A few” turns out to be Sixty Two! Where will these horses go? If the answer is the Los Lunas stockyard of killer buyer Dennis Chavez, their ordeal has only begun. Horse stockyards are notorious for the diseases they harbor and there can be no doubt that the Sheldon horses, lacking exposure to these diseases, will be infected in a matter of days.

Mustang advocates have long decried BLM’s decimation of wild herds with little or no justification, but nothing even remotely like the Sheldon foal massacre has ever been documented. To date, nine foals died or were aborted in the pens and about fifteen foals were probably left to die a slow death in the high desert. Three of these foals survived days of abandonment, and one foal that arrived with the adults survived trampling in the pens. There are still many pregnant mares and foals under a month of age in the crowded pens awaiting their fate. But why?

Sheldon management has given a variety of improbable reasons for their obsession with eliminating their wild horse population. At first they said they competed with the pronghorn antelope and sage grouse, but when an FWS study was cited that concluded there was no adverse relationship between these species they changed their justification to the fact that the horses were damaging the water resources. This was never established in any scientific way (the last Environmental Assessment having been done in 1980 when cattle were wallowing in the streams and ponds) and has been highly contested by experts in wild horse behavior.

Whatever the reason, the FWS has invented a plan that uses taxpayer dollars to encourage people to take large numbers of the wild horses, while prohibiting individual or small adoptions. The result will be that people like Graham will take the money and the horses will pay the price.

We may never know the true reason for the Sheldon management’s inhumane war on our wild horses. What we do know is they are government employees charged with protecting our common heritage, and that when challenged they came back with a clear answer that they do not work for us and they will do what they very well please!

[This alert is based on data gathered by the Special Research Group, an entirely independent volunteer organization. Supporting documents are available upon request. Contact John Holland at]


Contact your Senators and Representatives in Congress and voice your opinion regarding the effort by the US Fish & Wildlife Service to dump free-roaming horses onto the "killer" market at taxpayer expense. Ask for the matter to be investigated, persons to be held accountable for volating agency rules and federal laws, and that the USF&WS return to its former "placement for adoption" policy. A significant public response will be needed to stop this potential travesty.

Here's how to contact Public Officials in Washington D.C.

To view additional photos (some graphic) and read about additional specific details please visit the AWHPC web site.

(Note: We're still awaiting authentication of the top photo.)

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