WASHINGTON — The Colorado man under federal investigation for selling American wild horses to Mexican slaughter houses worked for the family farm of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, according to a Salazar family member.
Tommy D. Davis, a 64-year-old livestock hauler from La Jara, Colo., worked as an independent contractor once or twice on the Salazar family’s sprawling farm and ranch in nearby Manassa several years ago, said Salazar’s older brother LeRoy.
“I hired him once or twice to haul a load of cattle from one place in the valley to another place in the (San Luis) Valley, from winter pasture to summer pasture. It was about a 90-to-100 mile trip,” Salazar said in a phone interview Thursday. He added that Davis transported 40 “big cows” and 50 smaller cattle back and forth across the San Juan Mountains, which span the four-corners region.
Davis was quoted in a story for the online publication ProPublica in late September in which he said he had done “quite a bit of trucking” for Ken Salazar and that he and his late father had farmed the Salazar family’s land. He did not respond to three phone calls for this story.
Blake Androff, a spokesman for Secretary Salazar, said “(t)he Secretary has no recollection of Tom Davis, and to his knowledge has never had any business dealings with him.” He did not elaborate.
Ken Salazar’s present ties to the family farm are unclear. His older brother LeRoy, one of eight Salazar children, said he manages the farm but not the ranch. Salazar’s biography on the Department of Interior’s website said he was a partner on the family farm and farmed for more than three decades. After his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and subsequent confirmation as Interior Secretary in 2009, Salazar, 57, has lived for most of the year in Washington.
The Secretary’s relationship with Davis gained national attention after Salazar threatened to punch a Colorado reporter last week who had inquired about his department’s probe of Davis. Salazar apologized to the reporter, Dave Philipps of the Colorado Springs Gazette, on Wednesday.
Since Salazar’s tenure at the Department of the Interior began nearly four years ago, Davis has bought more wild horses from the agency than anyone. “He’s the biggest buyer of all the buyers,” Bureau of Land Management spokesman Tom Gorey said. BLM records show that Davis has purchased all but 36 of the 1,777 wild horses since 2009. Davis bought 466 in 2009, 437 in 2010, 599 in 2011, and 239 this year.
Gorey said the BLM “does not and has not knowingly sold or sent horses or burros to slaughter.” But the agency’s sales to Davis aroused the suspicions of wild-horse advocates, who noted he had made statements in support of horse slaughter. The Office of the Inspector General at the Interior department has launched an investigation with Colorado officials into Davis’ sales of the animals, Gorey indicated in a statement.
The BLM has struggled to find buyers of the horses, even though it sells the animals for $10 a head. Hay prices are up substantially in recent years and few Americans have stepped up to purchase the animals since the federal government began auctioning them in 2005. Most of the wild horses and burros live on federal land in Nevada, Colorado, Utah, and California. “Wev’e sold 5,400 horses since 2005. That’s not a lot since we have 47,000 horses,” Gorey said.
For wild-horse proponents, Salazar’s ties to Davis raise questions. “His fingerprints are all over this. He’s said that these horses should not be on federal land. He’s personally angry about wild horses living on the public domain,” Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Cloud Foundation and a volunteer for Salazar’s 2004 campaign, said in an interview.
Kathrens said she finds it difficult to believe that Salazar does not know that Davis buys wild horses from the federal government and sells them to slaughterhouses, noting that the two grew up 10 to 15 miles from one another. “Everybody knows everybody down there,” she said.
Salazar and Davis did graduate from the same small high school, Centauri in La Jara, but were not classmates. Davis graduated from the school in 1966, according to a woman at the school who declined to give her name. Ken Salazar graduated from there in 1975, according to public records. LeRoy Salazar said his brother spent two years at the high school after being enrolled at St. Francis Seminary in Ohio. Centauri High School has 277 students in grades 9-12, according to Brian Lach, an assistant principal at the school.
Davis is a well-known figure in the region. In 1976, he co-wrote a self-published book, “Be Tough or Be Gone: The Adventures of a Modern-Day Cowboy.” It described a 4,500-mile trek he made on horseback with a livestring from El Paso, Texas to Fairbanks, Alaska in fewer than six months to win a $500 bet.
While Salazar said he has no memory of Davis, he acknowledged that overseeing the National Wild Horse and Burro Program has been a challenge. “To tell you the truth, the wild horse issue has been the most difficult issue we have dealt with,” Salazar told Philipps in his phone call Wednesday.