Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar answers a question while visiting the volunteers at the Obama for America office in downtown Harrisonburg, Va., Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 24, 2012. (Credit: AP)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) -- U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar apologized Wednesday for threatening to punch a Colorado reporter who asked him about problems with the government's wild horse program at a campaign event.
Salazar called Dave Philipps, a reporter with The Gazette of Colorado Springs, to apologize and offer him an interview, and also sent him a letter of apology. The apology came a day after the newspaper posted a story and an audio recording of comments Salazar made at an Election Day event in Fountain while on a tour to support President Barack Obama's re-election.
Salazar told Philipps by phone Wednesday that "I want you to hear me loud and clear," The Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/ZLfB5r ). "I shouldn't have said that."
In the audio recording from the campaign event, Philipps is heard asking for an on-camera interview with Salazar, a Colorado native who previously served as a U.S. senator from the state.
After a few general questions, Philipps asked Salazar what he knew about Tom Davis - a Colorado horse slaughter proponent who has bought hundreds of wild horses gathered from public lands by the Bureau of Land Management - and about the agency's wild horse management program, which Salazar's office oversees.
Salazar answered briefly, saying the BLM has made a "major effort" to address long-standing problems with wild horses on public lands.
Salazar noted he was appearing at the campaign event, about 80 miles south of Denver, in a "personal capacity," and said his office could arrange to talk about Davis "at an appropriate time."
After the interview, Salazar accused Philipps of setting him up. He then posed the threat, saying: "If you do that to me again, I'll punch you out."
Also on the audio, Philipps is heard telling Salazar that he previously got no response after trying multiple times to arrange an interview through Salazar's press secretary.
The Gazette reported that it initially held off on posting the audio in hopes of getting an interview with Salazar. But a Colorado Springs-based wild horse advocacy group, The Cloud Foundation, publicized the exchange Monday and the Gazette published a story Tuesday.
Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010, and Gazette editor Carmen Boles declined to comment on the matter Wednesday to The Associated Press, but the newspaper did editorialize in favor of Salazar issuing an apology and granting an interview.
The BLM has struggled with how to manage growing horse herds, which can double naturally within five years if left unchecked. Horses have been injected with drugs and vaccines to slow reproduction and rounded up for adoption, but the agency currently has more horses in captivity than are left roaming the range.
Salazar addressed the problem in his phone call to Philipps.
"To tell the truth, the wild horse issue has been the most difficult issue we have dealt with. We've had hundreds of meetings on it and there are still a lot of problems," he said, according to the newspaper's account.
The Gazette previously reported that Davis acknowledged shipping horses out of state without inspections, in violation of branding laws. The case has been turned over to prosecutors in southern Colorado.
In a story for the nonprofit news organization ProPublica in September, Philipps reported that Davis has purchased 70 percent of the wild horses sold by the BLM since 2009 through its sale program and signed contracts promising that the animals wouldn't be slaughtered. Davis has said he has lived up to his contracts.