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.”