The Bureau of Land Management rounded up a horse herd that had roamed for decades on federal land in northwest Wyoming and handed the horses over to Wyoming officials.
They, in turn, sold the herd to the highest bidder, a Canadian slaughterhouse.
Wild horse advocates are incensed, saying they should have had a chance to intercede in the March roundup and auction. But the BLM says that the horses were abandoned, not wild, and that it publicized the sale beforehand.
"It would take very little to do this in a more effective way so that horses are not just sent off to slaughter indiscriminately," said Paula Todd King, of The Cloud Foundation, a Colorado-based advocacy group.
According to the BLM, the Wyoming horses weren't officially wild and protected by the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act, the federal law for maintaining many of the horse herds, some of which have roamed free in the West since the days of Spanish explorers more than 300 years ago.
The BLM bans wild horses from being sold for slaughter. Anybody who adopts a wild horse from the BLM must agree to provide it a home.
The horses in the Bighorn Basin's sagebrush hills descended from stray rodeo horses owned by Andy Gifford, a rancher and rodeo livestock contractor, in the 1970s, BLM spokeswoman Sarah Beckwith said.
Gifford had claimed the horses as his but never rounded them up before he died in 2009. That, plus the fact that the horses never interbred with wild horses, officially classified them as strays.
"Nobody had a permit to have these horses grazing on public lands," Beckwith said.
King questions that policy. "How long does a horse have to live wild and free before it's considered wild?" she said.
Area ranchers and farmers had long complained that the herd grazed down pastures and damaged cattle rangeland.
On March 18 and March 19, a BLM contractor rounded up the 41 horses and handed them over to Wyoming officials. Within hours, the horses were sold for $1,640 to Bouvry Exports, a slaughterhouse based in Calgary, Alberta.
The BLM follows state laws for handling stray livestock, Beckwith said, and it had no option but to hand over the horses to the Wyoming Livestock Board. The state took three bids for the horses, state Brand Commissioner Lee Romsa said.
Bouvry Exports shipped the horses out of state, Romsa said. Phone messages for Bouvry Exports weren't immediately returned.
BLM officials had printed notices about the upcoming roundup in local newspapers and posted notices in local post offices.
The roundup wasn't unprecedented. Last summer, a federal judge allowed an American Indian tribe to sell 149 mustangs over the objection of critics, who claimed that the unbranded animals were federally protected wild horses.
The mustangs were among more than 400 on U.S. Forest Service land along the Nevada-Oregon line that the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe claimed belonged to them.
In the end, King said, more than 160 were sold to people who planned to take them to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, but local residents and rescue groups raised money to buy 150 of the horses to spare them.
The BLM rounds up stray livestock perhaps three or four times a year in the West. Usually they are cattle or sheep. Impoundments of large numbers of stray horses are far less frequent, said Robert Bolton, a senior rangeland management specialist for the BLM.
"That's a pretty sizable number, and they have been out there a long time," Bolton said of the Wyoming herd. "Normally, most of our impounds have been in the low numbers."