Wednesday, March 24, 2010

BLM Cancels Contract; Wild Horses Leaving Southern Illinois, Concerns Remain

FRANKLIN COUNTY -- Years of a Ewing man's hard work is going south. He says it will hurt local businesses, and the wild horses he's cared for.

"There will be less people adopting horses; there's going to be less horses adopted," Walter Gentry said. "You are putting horses at risk."

The horses began arriving at the farm in Franklin County six years ago. Less than two months from now, those horses will be living in Mississippi.

The big reason for the move is money. The Department of the Interior, which oversees the wild horse adoption program, says the move will save the federal government money. But it means hundreds of families won't be coming to southern Illinois to spend money and adopt a horse.

The wild horses are more of a passion for Walter Gentry, than a job. They roamed the west before arriving at his farm east of Ewing.

It is part of The Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse & Burro Adoption Program, a federal program to control the mustang population.

Gentry opened this facility six years ago. His is the only operation of it's kind east of the Mississippi.

"Normally, we like to have about 150 horses here," Gentry said. "Right now, we have somewhere around 230 to 250 horses."

In December, the Bureau of Land Management decided not to renew its contract with Gentry. Instead, they partnered with a facility in Mississippi, the Piney Woods School.

Gentry says the move means a two-day layover for horses heading to most of the northern states, and a much longer drive for Illinoisans wanting to adopt.

"I don't see how they can cut it away, take it to Mississippi, and justify cutting off a fourth of the eastern states," Gentry said.

"This last year, we adopted about 900 horses in the south, about 400 in the north, so we do about two-thirds of the adoptions in the south," said Michael Reiland, Assistant Deputy State Director of Natural Resources.

Reiland says the new location allows federal officials to visit the facility more often. They can also contract directly for services. The can't do either of those things in Ewing.

"A couple of those are veterinary services and hay contracts," Reiland said. "That lowers our costs simply by dealing directly with that."

Gentry says he works with the Southern Illinois businesses that surround these fields, who deliver the same services. When the horses leave, so will that economic activity.

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management say the horses will be out of Ewing by May 31, 2010. However, a couple concerns remain.

For one, they are heading to a boarding school for high school students. Federal law prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from working in the pens with the wild horses.

News 3 also looked into the possibility of any political maneuvering involved. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Mississippi District 3, says, to his knowledge, no federal money has been set aside for the creation or expansion of the wild horse program in Mississippi.

By: Jeff Stensland

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