Feds weigh new horse policy

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July-August 2013:

WASHINGTON D.C.––Are U.S. federal horse policies pivoting toward an end to horse slaughter and greater tolerance for wild horses on the western range,  or toward a revived horse slaughter industry as “final solution” for perceived wild horse overpopulation?

Summer 2013 brought hints that horse issues could swing either way,  depending on what compromises are made to move USDA and Interior appropriations bills through the remainder of the gridlocked 113th Congress. Plans to resume horse slaughter for human consumption advanced in June and July 2013 with USDA approval of slaughter facilities operated by Valley Meat Co. in New Mexico,  Responsible Transportation in Iowa,  and Rains Natural Meats in Missouri.  Pending applications from prospective horse slaughterhouse operators in Tennessee and Oklahoma were expected to be approved soon. 

“We hope that such a plant can also open somewhere in the Pacific Northwest to assist us in dealing with over 12,000 feral horses that are severely damaging our homelands,”  Confederated Yakama Nation Tribal Council chair Harry Smiskin told Jeri Clausen of Associated Press.  The Yakama Nation in March 2013 endorsed a proposal to open a horse slaughterhouse in Hermiston,  Oregon.  

The Yakama Nation have sold wild horses to slaughter at least since 1953,  when the Walla Walla Union Bulletin reported that the tribe had hired a helicopter to help round up 7,000 horses from the Horse Heaven Hills near Kennewick.   This was among the first recorded uses of helicopters in horse capture.

Congress cut off USDA funding for inspecting horse slaughterhouses in 2007,  bringing a hiatus in direct exports of horse meat to Europe and Asia––but surging exports of horses to slaughter in Mexico and Canada encouraged U.S. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri to introduce a stealth amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill that obliged the USDA to resume the inspections,  thereby allowing horse slaughterhouses to operate.   

The Humane Society of the U.S.,  the Colorado organization Front Range Equine Rescue,  and the Marin County Humane Society,  Horses for Life Foundation,  and Return to Freedom,  all of California,  on July 1,  2013 jointly petitioned for an emergency injunction to block the authorizations to kill horses.  

“The 36-page petition to the U.S. District Court in San Francisco alleges the USDA did not prepare required environmental reviews,” wrote Alan Scher Zagier of Associated Press.

Unfit for consumption

“We have also asked the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services for a ruling that horse meat,  according to Missouri law,  is unfit for consumption,”  said HSUS Missouri state director Amanda Good.

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King had already declared that horsemeat fits the legal definition of an adulterated food product, because it is often contaminated with drugs used in horse racing and exhibition,  in particular the anti-inflammatory agent phenylbutazone. Residues from phenylbutazone can be harmful and even fatal if ingested by humans.  

King opined that horsemeat “cannot be manufactured, sold or delivered anywhere in New Mexico,”  summarized Albuquerque Journal staff writer Hailey Heinz.

Valley Meat Co. attorney A. Blair Dunn responded to Heinz that phenylbutazone is already banned by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in meat destined for human consumption,  and that accordingly “Valley Meat Co. has an accepted drug testing process.  There’s no substance being used in horses that we don’t have a test for,”  Dunn said.

But the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee on June 14,  2013 overwhelmingly approved by voice vote a Farm Bill amendment which would suspend USDA funding for horse slaughter for five years.  The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee adopted a similar amendment six days later.

Only three weeks later the political momentum shifted again when the House passed a Farm Bill that excised the anti-horse slaughter amendment.  Passed along partisan lines,  with no Democrats in favor and only 12 Republicans opposed,  the House version of the Farm Bill is unlikely to advance in the Senate as written.  What may be jettisoned from the Senate version to try to win House approval,  however,  is unclear.

The Maine House of Representatives meanwhile voted 94-49 in favor of a bill that would ban commercial horse slaughter for human consumption within the state,  and would also forbid transporting horses through the state for slaughter in Canada.  Despite the strong lower house support,  the bill died on July 9,  2013 when the Maine Senate adjourned without taking it up.  A similar bill died without a vote in New York state.

Wild horse policy

Wild horses on Native American reservations,   state-managed lands,  and federal land other than land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management have never been protected from roundups for slaughter,  like those long conducted by the Yakama Nation.  Wild horses on BLM land,  however,  have been nominally protected since 1971 by the Wild & Free Roaming Horses & Burros Act,  which authorizes the BLM to control the wild horse population by removing horses from the range,  but forbids selling them to slaughter until after the horses have been “titled” to an adopter for at least one year. 

A 2004 stealth rider to an Interior appropriations bill attached by former Montana U.S. Senator Conrad Burns stipulated that “Any excess animal or the remains of an excess animal shall be sold,  if the excess animal is more than 10 years of age,  or the excess animal has been offered unsuccessfully for adoption at least three times…without limitation.”

The Burns amendment appeared to reopen high-volume commerce in wild horses for slaughter,  but has been suspended since 2005 by language included in annual Interior appropriations bills.  About 49,000 of the 100,000 wild horses removed from the range by the BLM during the past 10 years remain in holding facilities.  The BLM wild horse budget has expanded from $20 million per year to $72 million,  of which $42 million is allocated to keep the 49,000 horses in custody.

According to the BLM,  about 31,500 wild horses remain on the range. 

NAS/NRC review

Concluded a 451-page National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council report released on June 5,  2013,  “Continuing ‘business as usual’ will be expensive and unproductive for the BLM and the public it serves.  

Compelling evidence exists that there are more horses and burros on public rangelands than reported at the national level and that population growth rates are high,”  the report added,  suggesting that the BLM has undercounted the wild horse population by anywhere from 10% to 50%.

“The current removal strategy used by BLM perpetuates the overpopulation problem by maintaining the number of animals at levels below the carrying capacity of the land,  protecting the rangeland and the horse population in the short term but resulting in continually high population growth and exacerbating the long-term problem,”   the National Research Council report said.  “As a result, the number of animals processed through holding facilities is probably increased by management.” 

Wrote Scott Sonner of Associated Press,  “The research panel noted there is ‘little if any public support’ for allowing harm to come to either the horses or the rangeland itself.”

Exulted American SPCA senior vice president of government relations Nancy Perry,  “The NAS study shows that cost-effective,  humane alternatives to ripping apart family units and taming the spirits of these majestic wild horses exist and can be implemented.  Rangelands are below carrying capacity for wild horses.  There is no indication that wild horses have caused irreversible damage to rangelands.  There are viable fertility control methods for managing wild horse populations.”

Agreed American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign director Suzanne Roy,  “The report delivers a strong case for an immediate halt to the roundup and removal of wild horses from the range.”

But Cloud Foundation founder and wildlife filmmaker Ginger Kathrens objected to Dan Vergano of USA Today that the National Research Council had overlooked the impact of grazing by the estimated 8.9 million cows and calves pastured on BLM land.  

Asked Kathrens,  “How can you worry about a herd of 100 horses when you might have 10,000 cows grazing in the same region?”

Wrote Vergano,  “Kathrens also criticized the report for dismissing one-year contraceptive vaccine shots for mares.  The report says that multiyear shots,  less studied and understood,  would be most economical.”

Horses missing

Some BLM wild horses are believed to be still going almost directly to slaughter despite the Wild & Free Roaming Horses & Burros Act. The BLM is reportedly still investigating what became of more than 1,700 wild horses bought by Tom Davis of La Jara,  Colorado between 2008 and 2012,  but the statute of limitations has expired on possible state charges of violating brand inspection laws.

“Davis,  a proponent of horse slaughter,  said he sent the horses to what he called ‘good homes’ all over the country.  None of the horses have been accounted for,”  reported Dave Phillips of the Colorado Springs Gazette on June 24,  2013.  

“Colorado law requires a state brand inspection when livestock is sold,  moved out of state,  or shipped in state more than 75 miles,” Phillips continued.  “Brand records show Davis received more than 1,700 horses from the BLM, but got inspections to ship only 765.  None of the horses are in his possession,  meaning almost 1,000 were moved without an inspection.  Davis admitted as much to ProPublica,”  for whom Phillips first exposed the case,  “saying he did not want brand inspectors to know where the horses were going.  When a reporter suggested that was illegal,  Davis replied,  ‘Since when is anything in this country done legal?’”

“It’s pretty clear he was breaking the law,”  Colorado state brand inspector Chris Whitney told Phillips.  “But not within the allowable timeframe.”

Responded Phillips,  “State and federal documents obtained by ProPublica suggest there is evidence Davis broke the law within the specified time.  BLM sales receipts show the agency sold Davis at least 239 mustangs in the last 18 months.  BLM records show the animals were shipped to Davis at his house in Colorado.  State brand inspection records during that time show Davis had only 43 animals inspected. That means the rest are either still in his possession or he violated brand inspection laws.”

“We are disappointed the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye,”  commented American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign communications director Deniz Bolbol.  

Foreign markets

U.S. horse slaughter entrepreneurs are investing in the belief that European demand for horsemeat will recover from a long slump that saw the price fall so far that instead of fetching premium prices,  horsemeat was in recent years disguised as beef in frozen meals.  The substitution,  involving 28 companies in 13 European nations plus Hong Kong,  came to light in January 2013.  Dutch meat wholesaler Willy Selten was arrested on May 23,  2013 for allegedly selling 300 metric tons of horsemeat labeled as beef.  But while Selten appears to be the biggest participant in the fraud to face charges,  many other people in the meat industry are suspected of having known about it.

One day after Selten’s arrest,  Toronto Star staff reporters Mary Ormsby and Dale Brazao revealed their findings that “The horse ‘passport’ Canada relies on to keep toxic meat off dinner tables around the world is open to fraud and errors.  The Star obtained 10 passports, nine of which were incomplete or mistake-filled,”  Ormsby and Brazao wrote.   

Canada currently exports “about $90 million in horsemeat from more than 80,000 animals annually,”  said Ormsby and Brazao.  

The price of horsemeat fell in Europe to the point that it became cheaper than the cheapest beef in part because of a glut in carcasses from Ireland.  

“Almost 6,000 stray horses have been put down after being seized by local authorities in the last five years,”  reported Cormac McQuinn and Sam Griffin of the Dublin-based Irish Independent.  “The rate at which horses are being slaughtered has spiralled with almost 80% of those horses being slaughtered since 2011,”  McQuinn and Griffin added,  but “less horses are being slaughtered for food due to the horsemeat scandal.”

“Last year, there were 24,000 horses slaughtered for meat. That’s likely to be under 8,000 this year,”  said Irish SPCA chief inspector Conor Dowling.                

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