Animal activists fight to save wild horses from slaughter

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LAS VEGAS - Wild horse advocates worried that a new law could send horses
to slaughterhouses are fighting to restore protections that would make it
illegal for individuals or companies to buy the animals from the federal
government with the intention of killing them for profit.

"America's wild horses belong to all Americans. They are our heritage and
you are their voice," Robin Lohnes, executive director of the American
Horse Protective Association told a crowd of more than 150 people attending
a Feb. 22 meeting in Las Vegas.

The rally was held to combat new legislation that was buried in an omnibus
spending bill signed into law late last year. The provision was slipped in
by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee
that funds Bureau of Land Management programs.

The "slaughter bill," as it's been dubbed by wild-horse advocates, lifts
some protections of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act
overriding that law which prohibited the sale of wild horses for processing
into commercial products. The Burns Amendment allows the BLM to now sell
horses older than 10 years of age and those that have been unsuccessfully
offered up for adoption on three occasions to the highest bidder without
limitations.

Horse advocates fear the "without limitations" clause will attract "killer
buyers" to sale yards where they could purchase a horse for an average of
$125 and then re-sell it to slaughterhouses that pay $1 a pound, or roughly
$800 per horse. Horsemeat is a delicacy mainly consumed in France, Belgium,
Japan, Italy and Switzerland.

"They can make a pretty penny doing it," Conni Canaday, a board member with
the Las Vegas-based National Wild Horse Association, said with a sigh as
she stroked the neck of her adopted horse Wacko. "The slaughter bill is
only a quick fix to lower the horse population."

An estimated 37,000 wild horses, often called mustangs, roam free on
rangelands in the western United States. In Nevada, home to more than half
of the nation's wild herd, BLM officials are looking to reduce the state's
horse population from 19,000 to around 14,500.

Burns introduced the rider on behalf of ranchers who claim the mustangs are
ruining the range. The Nevada Cattlemen's Association, one organization
supporting the measure, says it's necessary to thin a horse population that
competes with other livestock for food and water.

But horse advocates argue that the BLM is not doing enough to solve issues
of overpopulation. In 2001, the federal government funded a study to
determine how to manage the wild horse situation. It produced the massive
300-plus page Fleishman Hillard report, but "it went to deaf ears," said
Canaday.

Laurie Howard, vice president of the horse association, agreed, saying
ideas laid out in the plan were largely ignored.

"It was a fabulous study," Howard said. "If the BLM had done just half of
what was recommended in that report we wouldn't be having this
conversation."

Frustrated by the BLM's wild horse policy, the Nevada Wildlife Commission
recommended filing a lawsuit against the BLM for mismanaging the state's
herd. But Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn opposed taking such a drastic measure
and instead vowed to work with the federal government to get the herd under
control.

Lohnes said the problem is that the Adopt-A-Horse program is underfunded
and adoptions have not kept up with the numbers gathered during government
roundups. While the roundups have reduced the mustang population on the
range from 50,000 to 37,000, more horses are being rounded up than adopted
and it's become costly to the BLM, which spends $465 annually per horse, or
about $6.8 million a year caring for the animals.

The Burns Amendment currently applies to 8,400 unadoptable horses in BLM
holding pens across the country. But to date not a single horse has been
offered for sale under the new rules. BLM officials have said the agency is
looking to find the horses safe homes and have contacted wild horse groups
and several tribes asking if they could take some of the mustangs.

Meanwhile, Congressman Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., has introduced a bill that
would restore prohibitions on the commercial sale and slaughter of wild
horses.

Since 1980, more than four million American companion and wild horses have
been slaughtered (mostly overseas) to meet demand for horsemeat, according
to the Equine Protection Network.

In 2003, 35,000 horses were killed in two Texas slaughterhouses and
thousands of others were exported to Canada, EPN said. The three horse
slaughterhouses located in the United States are all foreign-owned. The
third is located in Illinois.