By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar apologized on Wednesday to a Colorado newspaper reporter whom he had threatened to punch after being asked about the federal government's management of wild horse herds in the American West.
The dust-up occurred on November 6, while Salazar was attending an election night campaign event for President Barack Obama in Fountain, Colorado.
Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Dave Philipps approached the cabinet secretary to ask him about a controversial program under the Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department agency, to control wild horses and burros on federally owned Western rangelands.
According to an audio clip of the incident posted on the Gazette's website, Salazar can be heard taking umbrage at the question, saying it was not the time or place to discuss public policy issues and accusing the reporter of having "set me up."
"You know what, if you do that again to me I'll punch you out, OK?" Salazar told Philipps, who said he had tried numerous times without success to pin down the secretary for an interview about his wild horse policies.
On Wednesday, Salazar called Philipps by telephone, and sent a letter apologizing for the incident, which the Gazette posted on its website.
"As I said to you by phone today, I apologize and regret the statement I said to you," the letter said. "I also will be happy to speak with you officially on ... the wild horse and burro program."
Philipps has done extensive reporting on southern Colorado rancher Tom Davis, a proponent of horse slaughtering, who has purchased 1,700 wild horses from the government but has not revealed the animals' fate. Phillips also has reported that Davis has a longstanding relationship with Salazar's family.
Animal rights groups have been critical of Salazar's handling of an estimated 37,300 free-roaming horses and burros on public lands, saying the BLM's policy of rounding up mustangs and sterilizing some captured stallions is inhumane.
One of those critics, documentary filmmaker Ginger Kathrens, witnessed the exchange between Salazar and Phillips.
"These threats would have been inappropriate coming from anyone, but the fact that it came out of the mouth of the secretary of the interior is alarming," Kathrens told Reuters.
A Colorado native, Salazar previously served as Colorado's attorney general and later was elected to the U.S. Senate before Obama tapped him as interior secretary in 2009.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Osterman)