Friday, January 20, 2012

Breaking News: OIG Investigation of BLM Roundup Contractor Requested

The Cloud Foundation

20 January 2012

cloud_email_logoInvestigation of BLM Roundup Contractor Requested
Allegations filed with Interior Office of the Inspector General

WASHINGTON (Jan. 20, 2012) – The Cloud Foundation (TCF) of Colorado Springs, CO has requested an investigation into the contracting process which led to Sun J Livestock of Vernal, Utah, receiving millions of dollars in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contracts to round up wild horses and burros in the West since the Fall of 2010. The request for an investigation was filed yesterday with the Interior Office of the Inspector General.

“Specifically, did Sun J have the requisite experience to obtain these BLM contracts?” asks Ginger Kathrens, Volunteer Executive Director of Colorado-based TCF. “Did the Sun J helicopter pilot, Josh Hellyer, have 1,500 hours of comparable experience conducting the humane round up of wild horses and burros? And was BLM aware of any experience short-comings prior to the issuance of contracts to Sun J?“

When Kathrens questioned BLM about the experience of the Sun J crew, she was told that they had worked with Cook Livestock, also of Vernal Utah. Kathrens contacted the owner of Cook Livestock and former BLM roundup contractor, asking about Sun J’s work experience with her company.

“Josh Hellyer was never on our payroll,” Kathrens was told. “And it’s seriously questionable whether the Sun J ground crew had the hours of prior experience required.”

Cook filed a protest with the U.S. Department of Interior in 2010 regarding the awarding of the contract to Sun J. The mandatory qualifications include “1,500 hours of flying experience… in similar projects” as well as 3,000 hours of “humanely capturing wild horses and or burros… while utilizing helicopter drive trapping.”

Maureen VanDerStad, president of Grassroots Horse, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in June of 2011, requesting the Sun J bid proposal, which would have included documentation regarding their experience including the experience of their pilot, Josh Hellyer. “I was told I would receive the requested information in 10 days,” states VanDerStad. “After numerous delays with assurances the information requested would be sent, I received a denial letter on August 30,” stated VanDerStad. She filed a FOIA appeal which was also denied.

On August 25, 2011 Debbie Coffey, an investigative journalist, also filed a FOIA requesting the Sun J bid proposal after reading the credentials of Josh Hellyer, an employee of Sky Aviation, Worland, WY. “I wondered what hauling equipment or aerial crop spraying had to do with rounding up wild horses?,” stated Coffey. She has yet to receive a response from the Department of the Interior.

“We believe that Sun J’s lack of experience has led to the inhumane treatment of wild horses and burros,” states Kathrens. “There have been a string of abuse claims from observers who have seen this crew in action.”

Allegations of inept and rough handling of wild horses arose at Sun J’s first roundup on the Western Slope of Colorado. In October of 2010, Sun J rounded up 73 wild horses in the Piceance/East Douglas Herd Management Area. As a result of the roundup over 10% of the wild horses died, including a foal that was killed as it was pushed into the trap and a mare who was kicked by a wrangler, roped and dragged into a trailer and subsequently died.

One month later, Laura Leigh, illustrator, journalist, and wild horses advocate, attended an Oregon roundup of wild horses in an area called Warm Springs.  “I questioned BLM regarding the clearly inexperienced performance of the helicopter pilot, Josh Hellyer,” states Leigh. “BLM told me he was ‘just learning.’” Nine horses died during and after capture by Sun J.

Allegations of abuse at the Antelope roundup in northeastern Nevada were brought to the attention of the District Attorney of White Pine County, in January of 2011 but the DA failed to act. “I filmed the helicopter pilot, Josh Hellyer, run an old mare until she collapsed in a snow bank.” Kathrens says. “As she struggled to get up and escape, the pilot flew within feet of her head before breaking off the chase.”

In February, a four person in-house BLM review team including Gus Warr, BLM-Utah Wild Horse and Burro Program Specialist and Lili Thomas, Wild Horse and Burro National Program Office, concluded that no existing BLM policy or procedures were violated in the Antelope roundup.

Laura Leigh, illustrator, journalist and wild horse advocate, filed charges of inhumane treatment in the Triple B roundup in Nevada in July of 2011 in which it appears that the Sun J pilot hit a horse with the strut of the helicopter. On August 31, 2011, the Honorable U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben found that the BLM's pilot was "in violation of" the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, 16 U.S.C. Section 1331 et seq.

BLM again did an internal review and found no inhumane treatment of the animals but did say that there were cases of “inappropriate, aggressive” practices.

Most recently, in December of 2011 Kathrens, who is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian, filmed the Sun J ground crew repeatedly hot-shotting 10 burros at the most recent Calico roundup in northwestern Nevada while BLM personnel and a government vet stood watching, but did not intercede.

Since the Fall of 2010 Sun J Livestock has received over $5 million in BLM contracts to round up wild horses and burro. Previous to this, they reported an annual income of $40,000.

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Media Contact:

Lauryn Wachs

Links of Interest:

Wild burros hotshotted at Calico roundup (TCF video):

Old mare run to exhaustion at Antelope roundup (TCF video):

Horse hit with skid of Sun J helicopter (Laura Leigh video):

Horses chased relentlessly at Triple B roundup (Grassroots Horse photos):

Horse strangled by negligently loose rope at Triple B roundup (Laura Leigh video):

DOI denial of VanDerStad FOIA request:

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