Ongoing drought and decades of overgrazing have devastated grasslands on the Navajo Reservation. With a wild, feral horse population in the tens of thousands, the tribe has made the difficult decision to round up as many of the animals as possible. Most of those horses will end up at a slaughterhouse in Mexico.
At daybreak a group of Navajo cowboys hired by the tribe’s Department of Agriculture set up a corral at a lone windmill. Then they spread out on horseback and atv's in search of the animals. The man in charge, Ray Castillo, was scouting from a hilltop.
"As we were driving in, there was eight of them right down here," say's Ray. "So we figured we'd go after them first. The further in there we go, the more horses we're probably gonna start finding."
This is a problem all over the Western United States. But on the reservation it’s estimated there are somewhere between 60,000 and 75,000 feral horses. Officials say that’s four times what the land can support. So the Navajo tribe has decided to round up as many as possible and sell them since stray horses are dominating windmills, wells, natural springs, going to corrals, breaking into hay barns and causing damage.
Kim Johnson runs the reservation grazing management program. She says earlier this summer the president issued an emergency drought declaration that earmarked 1.3 million dollars to deal with the feral horse problem. About 60 communities, more than half the reservation, have requested roundups.
"There's also animals out there that are injured and nobodies there to take care of them," she says. "They are just dying
a slow death." Once rounded up, the unbranded animals are immediately sent to auction. Kim says the unbranded ones are sold to buyers that are bonded by the Navajo Nation and she believes the destination is Mexico to a slaughter processing
With the horse market at an all time low, the Navajo Nation is getting somewhere between $10 and $20 per head. A quarter of what it costs to bring them off the range. Recently the tribe officially came out in support of a horse slaughter processing plant that’s trying to open closer to home, in New Mexico. A lawsuit has temporarily stopped it from happening.
Erny Zah is a spokesman for the Navajo Nation. He says this has been a really difficult decision to make. "We have a kinship with all our surroundings and the horses, they are a part of our creation myth, they are a part of who we are as people. That's where those old ceremonies come in, of asking for their help by eating their meat, because at times during the winter months our people used to do that, to get strength. The animals are revered."
"This is not something we came to as an abrupt solution," says Zah. "This is something we've weighed, we've thought about we've prayed about and this is the best way we see to manage our horse population."
Some members of the Navajo Nation say taking such drastic measures with a sacred animal should be reached through consensus. Zah says the president's office is just trying to manage the Nation’s resources responsibly.
Source: KUNM Radio by Rita Daniels
Among many issues President Ben Shelly lobbied for on his trip to Washington D.C. this week, was asking congressional leaders not to support a provision in the 2014 Agricultural Appropriations Bill that would reinstate a ban on horse slaughtering.
The prospects aren't good, but meanwhile, the owner of a proposed horse slaughterhouse says he'd be willing to locate on the Navajo Nation - whose sovereign status may exempt it from the ban.
In 2011, Congress removed a ban on horse slaughtering that had been in place since 2006. Even though the Obama Administration is against horse slaughtering, the U.S Department of Agriculture issued permits to Valley Meat Inc., of Roswell, N.M. and Responsible Transportation in Iowa in June to begin horse slaughter operations.
On Aug. 2, Shelly wrote to U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, and other congressional leaders about the Navajo Nation's growing problems with feral horses, including his support for horse slaughtering from a land manager perspective. From his experience from driving across the reservation, especially driving to and from his home in Thoreau, N.M. to the tribal capital in Window Rock, the president said he would tell congressional leaders what he sees first-hand.
"They are starving and dying of thirst," he said about the estimated 75,000 feral horses on the reservation in an Aug. 16 interview with the Navajo Times. "I feel sorry for them," he added. "They're skinny, they're mustangs and they're small." In the letter to Grisham and also in his interview with the Navajo Times, Shelly said the range of the land - about 27,000 square miles - is suitable for only about 30,000 horses, and not 75,000. Shelly said the overpopulation of feral horses has resulted in the imbalance of the Navajo landscape, with the rangeland being depleted, water sources damaged through feces and urine contamination and even fatal car-horse collisions on the highways. He also said that the thousands of free roaming feral horses are competing with other livestock and wild game for resources to survive, which he claims has changed the migratory processes for wild game.
He cited the Navajo Department of Agriculture's statistics about how much of an impact these horses have on the landscape, saying a single feral horse consumes 5 gallons of water per day, or 1,825 gallons of water per year. These feral horses also consume 18 pounds of forage per day, or 6,570 pounds per year. "Removing 159 from the Navajo Nation would save 290,175 gallons of water per year and 1.1 million pounds of forage," the president said. On his trip, Shelly said he would also meet with officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and challenge them about helping tribes with managing their lands, considering
the agency has a history of Indian policy like the 1930s Navajo Livestock Reduction.
"We now have an overstock of horses," he said. "Why are they not here? The BIA should be in charge of this. What happened to that federal policy? That's what needs to be said in Washington, D.C." Though he favors the idea of slaughtering horses to help restore the land back in balance with nature, the president also said he's "open" to other ideas, such as adoptions, before the horses go to slaughter. "I'm open," he said, before adding that if the feral horses couldn't be sold or adopted, slaughter is "the only thing you can do."
Shelly will need to do some major convincing. According to a June 13 press release issued by the House Appropriations Committee, the appropriations bill passed the committee's floor with several amendments. One of those amendments, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Virginia), prohibits government funding for inspections of horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. - which effectively shuts down the industry. The amendment has bipartisan support. The appropriations bill, which totals about $19.5 billion in discretionary funding, now proceeds to the full House floor for consideration. It is $1.5 billion below the fiscal 2013 bill enacted into law and approximately equal to the current funding level caused by automatic sequestration spending cuts, according to the appropriations committee.
Grisham, a Democrat who represents District 1 in Albuquerque, opposes slaughtering horses for meat. She was pleased with U.S. District Court Judge Christina Armijo's Aug. 2 decision to temporarily bar Valley Meat. Inc. from operating its horse slaughter facility, and with the recent passage of the agricultural appropriations bill.
"Horse meat also poses significant food safety issues that make it dangerous for human consumption," she said. "I urge Congress to pass this Agriculture Appropriations bill that will prevent horses, a majestic fixture of the American West, from being methodically and inhumanely put to death."
Like Grisham, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King opposes horse slaughtering. He is an intervener in the lawsuit against the U.S Department of Agriculture for its alleged failure to conduct the proper environmental review before placing inspectors in horse slaughter plants, including at Valley Meat Inc.
"I think horses that have been wild or horses that are undernourished are not horses amenable for human consumption," King said, adding that in the U.S. horses are not perceived as food animals like pigs, chickens or cattle. King said the issue in the case is about the way in which the USDA issued the permit, without environmental review, to have federal inspectors inside Valley Meat Inc.'s operations. "This is something that hasn't been done in a number of years," he said. "It is a major federal action. That is what triggers an necessity for the environmental impact."
The U.S. Humane Society was contacted for an interview, but according to Stephanie Twinning, public relations manager for the organization, lawyers encouraged her not comment on the matter because it's in litigation. The Humane Society has maintained that Armijo's temporary restraining order, which prevents Valley Meat Inc. and other horse processing plants from operating for 30 days, is a step toward ending the inhumane treatment of horses at slaughterhouses.
Armijo has at least until Sept. 3 to decide whether to extend the order to a preliminary injunction, which could put Valley Meat Inc., out of business for at least six months to a year. Valley Meat Inc. owner Rick De Los Santos, however, remains optimistic about how Armijo will rule, because the Humane Society, King and other horse advocate plaintiffs have the burden of proof.
"The Humane Society has burden of proof to prove this to the judge they're correct in what they're saying," De Los Santos said. De Los Santos, whose plant was a cattle slaughterhouse for 22 years, said his company is exempt from the environmental clearance.
De Los Santos said he has had hundreds of angry phone calls since he announced plans to open the plant, including death threats against him and his family.
In late July, an arsonist set fire to the plant. He is waiting for an October hearing to renew a discharge permit for his operation, which was requested by the New Mexico Environment Department after more than 450 comments were filed against his operation becoming a horse slaughterhouse.
De Los Santos contends that most of the comments are from people from out of the U.S. and state of New Mexico, adding that there were no comments from residents of Roswell, known as a farming community. He also noted that the plaintiffs posted a $495,000 bond, ordered by U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Hayes Scott, because Valley Meat Inc., and Responsible Transportation (which has since dropped plans to slaughter horses) would suffer damages and losses from being inoperable.
The Humane Society objects to the bond and challenged it in hearings on Wednesday. The outcome of that hearing was unavailable as of press time. De Los Santos added that if he could get the Navajo Nation's support to set up a slaughterhouse on the reservation, he would jump at the opportunity. "It would be something that would benefit the Navajo Nation," he said, adding that China and Mexico are the largest consumers of horsemeat. "I'd be willing to talk to President Shelly."
As for the state legislature, representatives Sandra Jeff and Sharon Clahchischilliage, who are both enrolled members of the Navajo Nation, share Shelly's concerns about the feral horse issue on the reservation and have come out in favor of slaughtering.
Source: Navajo Times
Navajo Nation rounds up horses on drought-stricken reservation; those unclaimed will be sold to Mexico to be slaughtered.
Navajo Nation rangers have rounded up numerous horses on the reservation under an operation conducted as part of the tribe’s response to the continuing drought.
A natural resources law enforcement official says least 248 horses were seized through Thursday and that additional horses were seized in operations late last week. The operations were conducted in the Iyanbito, Canyon de Chelly, Pinedale, Chinle, Black Mesa, Ganado and Blue Water Lake areas, the Gallup Independent reported.
The horses seized are said to be either feral or belong to residents who lack grazing permits or have more horses than their permits allow. Grazing official Wilbur Murphy said horses unclaimed by residents will be sold to a buyer either for resale off the reservation or for transport to Mexico for slaughter for meat.
The Navajo Nation has voiced support for a plan by a Roswell company, Valley Meat Co., to begin slaughtering horses for meat. A spokesman for Navajo President Ben Shelly has said the reservation can no longer support the estimated 75,000 feral horses that are drinking wells dry and causing ecological damage to the drought-stricken range.
The Navajo Nation Council has approved $3 million in emergency funds to combat extreme drought conditions on the reservation and nearly $1.4 million in additional funds for feral horse roundups.
Leonard Butler, a tribal Natural Resources law enforcement official, said tribal chapters that approved resolutions to conduct the horse roundups in their communities will be compensated with about $20 per head.
“That’s the incentive for the chapter to pass resolution to participate in the roundup,” Butler said.
Ranger Lorenzo Lapahie said horses that are branded will be kept for three days to give owners time to reclaim the animals by showing a grazing permit and proof of ownership.
Valley Meat’s plan has sparked a national debate about whether horses are livestock or companion animals and how best to deal with the tens of thousands of wild, unwanted and abandoned horses across the country. Horses were slaughtered domestically for decades until Congress cut funding for inspections for horse plants in 2006. That funding was restored in late
Source: The Associated Press
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