WARM SPRINGS INDIAN RESERVATION, Ore. – Here on this reservation in north-central Oregon, horses are woven deeply into daily life. They are traditionally used by tribal members in their work and their culture, whether it be for rodeos or horse parades.
Gathering, breaking and selling wild horses has long been part of the tribe’s economy. Horses that don’t make the grade are sold for slaughter.
But the nation’s final three slaughterhouses were shuttered two years ago, and a perfect storm has formed with a glut of horses, lack of a market and economic recession.
Tribal rangeland managers now estimate 20,000 wild horses are overrunning Indian Country in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, with an annual foal crop raising the population by some 20 percent a year.
At the Yakama reservation, range managers say 12,000 wild horses are damaging medicinal plants, depleting forage for wildlife, eroding fragile rangelands and harming salmon streams.
“We have been spending billions on salmon and steelhead recovery, and it goes for naught if we don’t do something that fixes these other problems,” said Arlen Washines, program manager for the Yakama Nation Wildlife Program.
Agricultural and rangeland experts from five tribes have been meeting quietly since last winter to explore options to manage horse populations on reservation lands. Their ideas, still in discussion, run the gamut. The most controversial: opening a slaughter plant at the Warm Springs reservation, and maybe someday packing the meat for human consumption overseas, if the regulatory hurdles can be cleared and economics pencil out.
The Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition, as the working group calls itself, says it wants to save and care for the horses with better management of the herds. The group is exploring adoption and contraception, but issued a draft report that declares some wild horses will have to be killed to rebalance the ecosystem. The coalition believes horse-slaughtering facilities are needed now – starting with a plant at Warm Springs.
There used to be a thriving horse market in this country, with buyers bidding on horses for processing plants in Stanwood, Wash.; Maytown, Wash.; and more than 20 other plants across the country, supplying an eager trade, particularly in Europe.
But the country’s remaining three horse slaughterhouses, in Illinois and Texas, closed in 2007 after a sustained campaign by animal-rights activists that resulted in Congress forbidding USDA inspection of horse meat for human consumption. That ended any legal commercial packing industry for horse meat in this country.
Still, there is a demand for horse meat, particularly in Europe. But with no packer competition in the U.S. to supply it, and a glut of horses, foreign packers can set their price.
Trucking the animals long distances to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico also means buyers will take only the fattest, biggest animals.
For the sick, the old and the skinny, today there is often no market at any price. Buyers who remember paying 70 cents a pound at auction are today paying as little as 6 cents a pound – if the packers will even take the animal.
And the problem stretches far beyond Indian Country.
The bottom has fallen out of the horse market just as the recession is driving even owners of pedigreed, suburban stock to unload animals they can’t afford to care for, overwhelming rescue and shelter operators.
It’s the same story for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is struggling to feed and care for some 30,000 wild mustangs gathered from public rangelands and put out to pasture in the Midwest in deference to opponents of slaughter.
The BLM is paying $27 million this year alone to feed and care for wild horses living out their days at taxpayer expense. So far, the BLM has no solution to the problem.
Jenny Edwards, executive director of Hope for Horses, a nonprofit horse-rescue organization based in Woodinville, Wash., said that while she is no fan of slaughter, it is a necessary option. “We have to be big boys and girls about this – be realistic,” Edwards said.
The Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition, composed of members of the Yakama and Colville tribes in Washington, the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes in Oregon, and Shoshone Bannock in Idaho, wants a rendering plant at Warm Springs where live horses from the reservations and beyond could be slaughtered. The meat and carcasses would be processed for nonhuman consumption and disposal.
Markets for the meat, such as zoos, are being explored. Jason Smith, range and agriculture manager at Warm Springs, has traveled to Canada to examine packing plants.
Several states, including Montana, also are looking into the possibility of reviving U.S. horse slaughter.
They all face an uphill battle with animal-rights activists seeking to restrict slaughter even further. Legislation is pending in Congress to outlaw transporting U.S. horses to slaughter – anywhere.
“It’s not an option,” said Katie Merwick, president and founder of Second Chance Ranch, a horse-rescue operation in Elma, Wash. “It’s not conscionable, it’s not moral. It’s a horrible, scary transport and a violent death.”
She said euthanasia is the only acceptable alternative. While it’s expensive – it can cost $750 to put down and haul away a horse – it’s cheaper than keeping the animal, and can be paid for in installments, Merwick said. “I guarantee if it was to fix your car, you’d find the money,” Merwick said.
But people are simply dumping their animals because they see no other choice, Edwards said.
The lack of a viable horse-slaughter market has disrupted tribes’ traditional relationships with their horses. “They fooled with our culture and our livelihood and our right to work,” said Smith, at Warm Springs.
Here on the reservation, horses peer from rimrock cliffs, doze in the sagebrush, and streak in free-running herds across the flats at the base of Mount Jefferson, looking every bit the icon of the West some people think they are.
But on this reservation horses aren’t icons or romantic abstractions. “We break and sell the best of our horses, and with no horse market, there has to be an out for the old ones, the sick ones, the ones that just don’t make the cut,” Smith said. “That is a huge part of our management. Without it they are neglected, overlooked.”
At Yakama, other factors have also contributed to the horse problem, including the preference among some tribal horsemen for highly bred, pedigreed animals for use in rodeos and even for status, said Washines, at Yakama.
“It affects how people look at wild horses on the reservation. They are not papered, so … they don’t mean anything to anybody. It has affected the spiritual connection to the horse,” Washines said. “The two biggest problems is the shutdown of the market for the horse, and the lack of interest in the horse itself.
“… They just leave them out there and nobody thinks about them, they don’t have anything to eat, they eat themselves out of their home range areas, and they just stay in the same place. People say just leave them alone, they will be all right. Well, horses don’t eat rocks that I know of.”