A grim future awaits the nation's wild horses
Last week, a federal judge in New Mexico cleared the way for domestic slaughterhouse operators to again kill and render horses on American soil. Monday night, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver stayed that ruling, at least temporarily, so that it could evaluate whether the Obama Administration unlawfully permitted those operators to resume the brutal practice without first complying with all relevant environmental regulations.
The fight over horse slaughter in America, this latest legal battle reminds us, is decades old and ceaseless. But what is new to the grim equation today, six years after horse slaughter was halted here, is the presence of some 49,000 wild horses in long- and short-term government "holding facilities" in the Midwest and West. Over the past half decade or so, these federally protected horses have been removed from Western rangelands by the Bureau of Land Management, often at the request of ranchers and livestock agents, and placed into "federal custody" at great cost to the American taxpayer. There they now sit, utterly vulnerable to the market forces represented by those slaughterhouses.
Federal law is supposed to prohibit the slaughter of those horses. But the Interior Department has not always adequately enforced the prohibition. Last September, for example, Pro Publica published an exposé titled "All the Missing Horses" about the sale of hundreds of federally protected mustangs to a proponent of horse slaughter. Federal officials require all buyers to sign contacts saying they won't "sell or transfer" the wild horses for slaughter, but there is virtually no enforcement mechanism beyond the requirement.
No one seems to have a plan about what to do with all these wild horses. A National Academies of Science report issued in June blasted the BLM for faulty math and science in its management of the herds — and nothing happened. In the meantime, no one in political power is asking why the federal government should continue to subsidize big business — oil and gas and cattle and agriculture interests — through dramatically reduced lease rates on public lands. These industries are getting their own form of welfare at the expense of the nation's herds. If they won't share public lands with the herds, shouldn't they at least pay for a secure future for those horses?
So we have the looming resumption of slaughterhouses on American soil: Plants in New Mexico and Missouri will be up and running as soon as the courts clear it. And we have tens of thousands of horses on the public dole. And we have a federal government scrounging for every penny it can find. And we have a Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, who has shown no inclination whatsoever to ensure the safety of the herds. Is there any reason to think these horses are not about to meet a tragic, unlawful end?
A poll conducted in 2012 indicated that 80 percent of the American people oppose the slaughter of American horses for human consumption. In April, the Obama administration included in its 2014 budget a provision that would prevent such slaughter. By June, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would permit horse slaughterhouses to reopen. Evidently, the White House concluded that it is more humane to kill our horses here in the United States than to have them trucked across the border for slaughter. It chose not to fight lawsuits brought by slaughterhouse operators.
There is a demand for horsemeat abroad. There is now an ample supply of horse meat here at home, conveniently corralled from public lands in the name of the American people. And now the abbatoirs are revving up again. I don't believe the American people have consented to this looming disaster. I don't believe they will countenance it. There ought to be a ban on the domestic slaughter of our horses. And there ought to be a ban against the exportation of our horses to slaughter abroad.
Andrew Cohen, a legal analyst, writes frequently about the Interior Department and the nation's wild horse herds.