The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, accused of looking the other way as untold numbers of federally protected wild horses went to slaughter, has agreed to tighten the reins on its wild horse adoption program.

A court agreement, signed Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben, provides new protections to curb abuses of the program. It also settles a lawsuit filed in June by The Fund for Animals and Animal Protection Institute of America Inc."Now for the first time it is a federal crime to seek to adopt or seek title to animals in order to sell them to slaughterhouses or for commercial purposes," said Howard Crystal, The Fund for Animals lawyer in Washington, D.C.

"We feel like we've satisfactorily resolved all of the issues that we brought forward in a way that's really to going to make a difference for the horses and the adoption program in the future."

Tom Pogacnik, who heads the wild horse adoption program in Reno, did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.

In their lawsuit, the groups claimed the BLM, through an unspoken policy of "don't ask, don't tell,' routinely violated a 1987 court order that prohibits issuing a title to an animal if the agency knows the person trying to adopt a wild horse intends to use the animal for commercial purposes.

The BLM manages about 42,000 wild horses and burros on public lands in 10 Western states. During the past 25 years, more than 175,000 of the animals were rounded up and placed with adopters for about $125 each.

The adopter must keep each animal for one year and comply with a health check before receiving a title.

But the settlement does not mean wild horses will never be sold for slaughter.

While The Fund for Animals believes federal law prohibits selling an adopted horse for slaughter at any time, it did not raise that issue in its lawsuit.

"This settlement does not address the question of whether it is illegal to ever sell an animal for slaughter," Crystal said. "The settlement is about whether people can take title to animals with the intent to sell them for slaughter. That's been the major loophole for years.

"We're trying to get at people who adopt animals to make a buck. The adoption program is designed to provide suitable homes for these animals, not for people to make a profit."

A slaughterhouse executive agreed.

"We've processed about 50 of the wild horses this year," said the vice president of Dallas Crown Packing, a slaughterhouse in Kaufman, Texas. "All had titles."

The executive, who would not give his name, said the company routinely checks titles.

Under the settlement, before title to the animal is granted, an adopter will be required to sign an affidavit stating that they have no intent to sell the horse for slaughter, bucking stock or commercial processing. Violators would be subject to criminal prosecution for perjury.

Additionally, the BLM agreed to negotiate "memorandums of understanding" with slaughterhouses in the United States and Canada that process horses for human consumption.

The agency will seek commitments from slaughterhouses to retain all paperwork on BLM-branded horses for one year and to notify the agency immediately if it receives a wild horse without title papers. Inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture also will be asked to notify the BLM if they discover untitled horses during inspections of meat-processing plants.

The BLM also agreed to propose a regulation prohibiting horse adoptions through power of attorney, a practice that has been used for mass adoptions in the past.

The groups' lawsuit followed an investigation by The Associated Press that uncovered abuses in the $16 million-a-year program. The probe found that the program allowed thousands of wild horses and burros to be slaughtered and that BLM employees profited.

It also found that the BLM had lost track of 32,000 adopted animals and that 90 percent of the horses rounded up each year - or several thousand - ended up being slaughtered.

The reports were disputed by the BLM.