Feds reluctant to kill wild horses

  • Wild horses gathered in the Stone Cabin Valley in Nevada last February are sorted before being sent into the BLM's holding system ... with about 47,000 others.

    Dave Philipps

If caring for captive wild horses costs so much, why not just sell them for slaughter?

It's the "simple solution," former Bureau of Land Management wild horse and burro program chief Don Glenn, now working for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told a federal advisory panel this spring. "It makes no sense for the taxpayers to put out $75 million to take care of a bunch of old horses that nobody wants. They should be sold without limitation."

"Without limitation" basically means selling to slaughterhouses. The BLM has considered the idea but never openly embraced it, for many reasons. Truth is, that "simple solution" is a tangle of competing morals and contradictory laws.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 gave the U.S. Interior secretary authority to order "the removal or destruction of excess animals." However, between 1988 and 2004, Congress prohibited the BLM from spending money to euthanize horses.

In 2004, with the captive population at 14,000, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., slipped a rider into the agency's annual budget ordering the BLM to sell all old or unadoptable horses without limitation for $10 each. The BLM refused, instead making horse buyers sign documents promising they would not resell the animal "for processing into commercial products," circumventing the bill's intentions and limiting sales to a few hundred per year.

The BLM feared that selling horses for slaughter would pose an "immediate threat to the careers of the officials involved," according to a 2008 Government Accountability Office analysis.

That same year, with the captive population at 31,000, agency officials weighed slaughter and large-scale euthanasia behind closed doors, according to minutes obtained by the nonprofit Conquistador Equine Rescue and Advocacy Program. The agency ultimately backed off, deciding that such drastic measures would enrage animal-rights organizations and "threaten the safety of our facilities and our employees." (Meanwhile, the BLM has quietly sold more than 1,700 horses to a Colorado slaughter proponent, saying the man has found the horses "good homes" -- a claim that lacks supporting evidence and that the agency hasn't verified.)

Other countries have fewer cultural qualms. There are active horse slaughterhouses in both Canada and Mexico, which ship meat abroad. Most European cultures eat horsemeat, as do Japan and China. Australia, with an estimated 400,000 wild horses, or "brumbies," regularly rounds up herds for slaughter, shoots horses from helicopters, and even provides citizens with pamphlets on how to effectively target them with rifles.

In the United States, though, proposals to kill wild horses provoke outrage. In retaliation for Burns' 2004 amendment, wild horse allies in Congress effectively banned all horse slaughter in 2006 and again barred the BLM from spending any money on euthanasia in 2010. In 2011, others in Congress reversed the slaughter ban, clearing the way for the industry to restart, though there are still no active horse slaughterhouses in the U.S.

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