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On Fate of Wild Horses, Stars and Indians Spar 

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New York Times, FERNANDA SANTOS, August 10, 2013

Horses trying to evade capture in New Mexico. Tens of thousands of them roam free in the West. By FERNANDA SANTOS

Horses trying to evade capture in New Mexico. Tens of thousands of them roam free in the West. By FERNANDA SANTOS

It seemed at first like a logical alliance for boldface names in the interconnected worlds of Hollywood and politics. Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, and the actor Robert Redford, a staunch conservationist, joined animal rights groups in a federal lawsuit to block the revival of horse slaughter in the United States, proclaiming that they were “standing with Native American leaders,” to whom horse slaughter “constitutes a violation of tribal cultural values.”

Soon, though, the two men, who recently started a foundation to protect New Mexico’s wildlife, found themselves on a collision course with the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest federally recognized tribe, whose president released a letter to Congress on Aug. 2 asserting his support for horse slaughtering.

Free-roaming horses cost the Navajos $200,000 a year in damage to property and range, said Ben Shelly, the Navajo president. There is a gap between reality and romance when, he said, “outsiders” like Mr. Redford — who counts gunslinger, sheriff’s deputy and horse whisperer among his movie roles — interpret the struggles of American Indians.

“Maybe Robert Redford can come and see what he can do to help us out,” Mr. Shelly said in an interview. “I’m ready to go in the direction to keep the horses alive and give them to somebody else, but right now the best alternative is having some sort of slaughter facility to come and do it.”

The horses, tens of thousands of them, are at the center of a passionate, politicized dispute playing out in court, in Congress and even within tribes across the West about whether federal authorities should sanction their slaughtering to thin the herds. The practice has never been banned, but stopped when money for inspections was cut from the federal budget.

In Navajo territory, parched by years of unrelenting drought and beset by poverty, one feral horse consumes 5 gallons of water and 18 pounds of forage a day — sometimes the water and food a family had bought for itself and its cattle.

According to the latest estimates, there are 75,000 feral and wild horses in the nation, and the numbers are growing, Mr. Shelly said. They have no owners, and many of them are believed to be native to the West. The tribes say they must find an efficient way of reducing the population. Although it is common to shoot old and frail horses — and more merciful than a ride to the slaughterhouse — there are too many of them to be dealt with, and there is some money in rounding them up and selling them at auction.

There is also the question of sovereignty, one of the points raised in a resolution endorsing horse slaughter that was issued by the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments. Citing hillsides and valleys denuded by overgrazing by feral and wild horses, which on reservations throughout the West “are nearly everywhere you look,” the resolution accuses the federal government of failing to consult the tribes before proposing language in the Agriculture Department’s appropriations bill to again withhold money for slaughterhouse inspections.

In a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, Jefferson Keel, the national congress’s president and the lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, said slaughter plants “represent a viable and humane method of assisting tribes and other entities in this country to stop the detrimental impact of tens of thousands of feral horses on our land.” Because of the horses’ numbers, the only practical solution is slaughtering, some in the tribes say.

Mr. Richardson, in an interview, acknowledged the conflict, which has sown divisions even among members of the same tribe. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include tribesmen like Paul Crane Tohlakai, a Navajo, and David Bald Eagle, the chief of the Minikoju Band of the Cheyenne River Tribe of Lakota Indians. In impassioned tones, they spoke of American Indians’ special relationship with horses, “the magnificent four-legged” animal “who has a part in our creation stories,” as Mr. Tohlakai put it.

“Institutionally,” Mr. Richardson said, responding to the claims by the Navajos’ president, “there have to be some issues that have to be dealt with, and that’s why the ultimate solution is to find a natural habitat, or a series of natural habitats, and adoption for the horses.” (Mr. Redford, a part-time resident of New Mexico, is on a hiatus, according to a representative, and unavailable for comment.)

The United States has never fostered a market for horse meat, a dietary staple in places like Belgium, China and Kazakhstan. It does have a history of horse slaughtering, though; at one point, there were more than 10 such slaughterhouses in the country. The last three, one in Illinois and two in Texas, closed in 2007, after Congress banned the use of federal money for salaries for personnel whose job was to inspect the horses and the facilities where they would be slaughtered. (One thing inspectors look for is evidence of drug use on the horses, not uncommon among those once used for racing.)

In their last year, the three plants slaughtered a total of 30,000 horses for human consumption and shipped an additional 78,000 for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, according to statistics by United States and Canadian authorities. Congress’s subsequent unwillingness to finance inspections made slaughtered horse meat ineligible for the seal of inspection it needs to be commercially sold, effectively ending the practice.

CONTINUED.. Read the rest of the article in the NYTimes (as of Sunday afternoon, there are over 200 comments in the Times. In recognition of the effort by Mr Santos in writing this piece, please go there to write your comments. That’s what makes the Editors sit up and pay attention not only to his writing, but to this subject.

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