EDITOR'S NOTE: An overpopulation of horses and a sluggish horse industry are adding to the dilemma of whether slaughtering horses is a reasonable alternative to an animal crisis. But several would-be slaughter companies who want to process horse meat to foreign buyers for a profit further complicate the issue. Also of concern are the strong emotions on both sides and the question of whether government should be held responsible for such a problem and whether our desire for the ethical treatment of horses should outweigh our responsibility to make difficult decisions to ensure their survival.
Just how big is the problem of equine overpopulation, the animal welfare issues involved in protecting the animals and the cost of a meaningful solution? It depends on who you ask, of course, but by any standard, the problem is really big and getting worse.
For the best part of a century or two, horses in America were the backbone of farming and ranching industries. Cowboys worked their cattle from horseback, farmers hooked them to wagons and plows and even the U.S. Army used them to move soldiers across the frontier and from battleground to battleground during several wars.
With time and technology, such as gasoline combustion engine and the introduction of cars, trucks and tractors, the need for the horse began to decline. But the interest in riding for sport and pleasure increased, and many farmers and ranchers still managed to find uses for the animals—still do.
But animals must eat, and they need water to drink. Domestic horses also need care from time to time, including the services of a veterinarian. And wild horses need grazing land and a good water source.
If you are enjoying reading this article, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.
But droughts cause pasture and forage to die and water sources to dry up. They force horse owners to supplement feed with expensive hay, when it can be found, just to sustain their animals.
As the current drought intensified, the number of abandoned domestic horses rose sharply; many were abandoned and left to survive on their own. Others roamed across rural roads and highways in search of water and forage. Far too many could find neither.
Problem more intense for wild horses
For wild horse herds out West, things were worse.
“As drought conditions continue, wild horses, livestock, and wildlife that rely on rangeland forage and water will face extremely challenging conditions that may leave them in very poor condition,” Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze said in a recent press release. “We are taking action to address these situations as quickly and as effectively as we can, but our options are increasingly limited by conditions on the land.”
Just last month, BLM began trucking 5,000 gallons of water per day, five days a week to four locations across Nevada at a cost of $1,000 per day in order to sustain wild horse herds stressed by prevailing drought conditions.
While the problem has escalated in recent years, efforts to thin wild herds were reduced this year. Because of off-range holding capacity limits and funding constraints, the BLM will attempt to gather and remove only 1,300 wild horses and burros this summer.
"Overall, the BLM anticipates removing about 4,800 animals from the range in Fiscal Year 2013, as compared to 8,255 in FY 2012,” the agency said earlier this year.
Many of those horses will be sold at auction, and many will be transported to Mexico for slaughter.
Just over 120,000 horses were being slaughtered in the U.S. at the time Congress withheld funding for horse meat inspections. Since the closure of domestic slaughter facilities, an estimated of more than 150,000 horses are being transported across the Mexican border each year to what many consider a far worse fate at facilities that are not regulated.
Native Americans divided on slaughter issue
Adding to the wild horse problem, many wild herds have moved off public lands after pastures were overgrazed and depleted. Many of these herds moved on to more fertile pastures on tribal lands, sometimes pastures dedicated to farming. These wild horses are now competing with tribal cattle, domestic horses and other wildlife, and tribes say they are causing serious damages to tribal land.
Last week the Navajo Nation conducted a wild horse roundup, the second this month with more to come. So far nearly 300 wild horses were rounded up and will be sold at auction.
A Navajo spokesman said as many as 75,000 horses could be on tribal land and many of are either sick or dying. Tribal land is capable of sustaining around 30,000 horses. While it costs the Navajo an estimated $70 a horse to round them up, tribal officials say they will only get about $10 a horse at auction.
Elsewhere on tribal lands, the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe on the Oregon border rounded up nearly 500 wild horses with intent to auction, but last week a wild horse advocacy group asked for a court order to block the sale of what they termed federally protected mustangs. As a result, the U.S. Forest Service issued a statement last week saying the potential for legal pressure over the horse issue has forced them to cancel plans for a $120,000 roundup in collaboration with the tribe scheduled this month.
Similar problems are being experienced by the Yakama Nation. Tribal officials there say more than 12,000 unwanted wild horses are on their property, competing for forage and water and destroying farm land and sensitive wild plants traditionally used in tribal medicine.
Both the Navajo and the Yakama support horse slaughter in the United States. In contrast, a number of other Native Americans groups are opposed.
The Cheyenne River Tribe Lakota Indians have made a public stand in opposition to slaughtering horses. The group is listed as one of the plaintiffs seeking to enjoin the USDA from authorizing resumption of horse slaughter for human consumption.
Members of other tribes, including Sandy Schaefer, a Sioux tribe member who lives in Roswell, consider horse slaughter as "greedy and disrespectful" and support legislation and court action that would prevent the practice.
Hurry up and wait?
One of the companies prepared to start up a new horse slaughterhouse, Responsible Transportation in Sigourney, Iowa, has dropped out of the game. Owners said they could not justify waiting because the loss of revenue is too damaging in the current economy. They are now planning to open the facility as a cattle slaughterhouse.
With the temporary restraining order in force, the facilities’ grants of inspection are now considered invalid until the lawsuit judgment is issued. Federal inspectors are barred from inspection activities or any other procedures involving the companies until the court reaches a decision.
Federal Judge Christina Armijo, who granted the restraining order, says she still plans on calling a full hearing on the plaintiff's initial preliminary injunction request within the next 30 days.