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Monday, September 17, 2007

New Leads in Mystery of 71 Dead Wild Horses on Test Range

UPDATED: New Leads in Mystery of 71 Dead Wild Horses on Test Range

(Aug. 22) -- Federal authorities have new leads in their investigation into the deaths of 71 wild horses on the Tonopah Test Range.

As the Channel 8 I-Team first reported earlier this week, 71 horses died after drinking water laced with high levels of nitrates.

The BLM has been investigating, but that probe is hampered because the Tonopah Range is a restricted area where classified military research is conducted.

A former Tonopah employee told the I-Team that the nitrates in the water probably came from chemicals used to de-ice runways at the military base.

The Environmental Protection Agency isn't saying much about that, and no one else is sure how the water was poisoned.

In previous years, dozens of wild horses have been killed in the same area and Tonopah employees even ran a betting pool about how many would eventually die.

(Aug. 20) -- The BLM and Air Force have a mystery on their hands -- what killed 71 wild horses up on the Nellis Range? Government scientists say a chemical in the water is what killed the horses, but they have no idea how it got there.

The BLM and Air Force say high levels of nitrates in a water hole killed the horses, but how did the nitrates get in the water in the first place? If there's a chemical in the water that can kill 71 wild horses, is it also a danger to people?

This has happened before, and if history tells us anything, it's that we shouldn't expect answers anytime soon... or ever.

The Tonopah Test Range in Central Nevada is one of those classified playgrounds where all sorts of military toys are tested. It's off limits to everyone else, and even the BLM needed special permission to go out there to investigate the deaths of 71 wild horses.

Photographs of the scene were not allowed but testing conducted by both BLM and the Air Force point to high levels of nitrates as the killer.

"Nitrates can be a natural occurrence in the soil. Those nitrates could always have been in that body of water. It's normally a six to eight foot deep pond, and due to the lack of rain, the pond decreased to a foot and a half. The level of nitrate concentration is one we've never seen before," said Pat Putnam, a BLM wild horse specialist.

Wild horses are tough animals. They can eat anything and survive by drinking the foulest water imaginable. Wild horse experts like Jerry Reynoldson think it's highly suspicious that so many could die like this, especially since other animals, including coyotes and birds, drank the same water from the same hole but weren't affected. They wonder if the horses were intentionally poisoned.

"We haven't ruled out anything in particular. A toxicity is a form of poisoning, whether it was done intentionally or not. It doesn't seem to look like that. To get onto the base, it's a high security level area," said Putnam.

But it's no secret that environmental poisons are buried and burned at secure areas in Nevada, including Area 51, the sister facility to the Tonopah Test Range. Classified workers have shown a callous attitude toward wild horses in the past.

Back in 1988, a betting pool was posted at Tonopah. The person who guessed the final number of dead horses at a water hole won the prize -- 61 horses died then and it wasn't because of something natural in the dirt.

"Basically, it was found that a subcontractor had ruled out some vats of some material that had high amounts of urea in it, because they were washed out on the playa and didn't permeate into the soil. The horses came and drank out of that," said Putnam.

If something similar happened this time, chances are the BLM isn't going to be able to find out. The military is doing its own testing of the soil, water, and carcasses but they're not going to tell BLM or the public about any classified projects that may or may not have contributed to horse deaths.

"We are not privy to that information," said Putnam.

The most troubling question is also unanswered. Is there something in the water out there that could migrate beyond the borders of the military range, something that could pose a threat to more than a few dozen wild horses?

Just to re-emphasize, there is no proof that anyone intentionally poisoned the horses or that anything bad might spread beyond the Tonopah test range. What we have are questions that are unlikely to be answered because of the classified work that goes on up there. Essentially, we will have to take the military's word for it that nothing shady is going on up there.

Email your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp.



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