On the Yakama Indian Reservation in southern Washington, wild horses trample the grass hills to dust. Without predators or market for purchase, the herds -- estimated at about 12,000 on the reservation, with a rangeland capacity much less than 1,000 animals -- grows out of control, reported The Seattle Times.
"They are beating it up so much we have no growth coming back," said David Blodgett Jr., a wildlife technician for the tribe, to The Seattle Times. "It is having a big impact on our traditions and culture, our big animals, our roots, our fish, they are all part of that circle that is part of our culture.
"We don't want to get rid of them," he said of the horses. "But we just want to manage them."
The idea of a tribal horse-processing facility first stirred in spring 2009. Controversial and hindered by legal roadblocks, Native American tribes, horse advocates and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are currently debating in Las Vegas at the first Summit of the Horse over how to deal with the unwanted animals.
Most recently, BLM Chief Bob Abbey railed against horse abattoirs as means to control the animals, reported the LA Times. Rather, the agency plans to give mares birth control in hopes of decreasing the need for horse roundups, in which animals are corralled in the tens of thousands and confined to holding pens, in addition to adoption and seeking places for horses besides holding areas. In 2010, taxpayers spent $37 million to stow nearly 40,000 animals in pens and pastures, the BLM told the Wall Street Journal.
Before the closing of horse processing facilities in the United States, the country slaughtered more than 100,000 horses a year, states the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCLS) Web site. But in 2007, equine processing was effectively shot by congress, which eliminated slaughterhouse inspection funds required by law for exportation. The action was spurred by pressure from animal-rights groups and video footage of mistreatment in butcheries.
Now, horses are increasingly crammed onto trailers and sent across borders to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. “In 2007, 35,000 horses were sent to Canada for slaughter, a 41 percent increase from the previous year, while horse exports to Mexico have more than tripled,” states NCLS Web site. Horse processing is not held to the standards for humane handling and euthanasia required in the United States, the site warns.
Many tribes and the United Horsemen, a Wyoming-based nonprofit organizing the summit, propose reviving horse processing. "We believe that humane processing is absolutely a moral and an ethical choice," said Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state lawmaker who organized the event, reported the Wall Street Journal.
The National Tribal Horse Coalition last year began a feasibility study for opening a slaughter facility on tribal lands, funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The study results, expected back soon, will help tribes decide whether horse processing is economically and legally viable, said Jason Smith of the Warm Springs tribe in Oregon, president of the coalition, to The Seattle Times.
"We are looking at whether this is economic for Indian Country," Smith said. "The horse population definitely needs some control and management, but right now it is a tough deal with existing markets. The horse markets are at rock bottom, I don't know that they can get any worse."
Another threat is public scrutiny, suggested Scott Beckstead, Oregon state director for the Humane Society of the United States, to The Seattle Times. "Horses are not food animals in this country; they are companions," Beckstead said. "My guess is they are scrambling to find a way to make it feasible, but they are fighting against the tide of public opinion."
While many Americans are averse to eating horsemeat, it’s a common commodity in Europe and Asia. "The Italians have recently become the biggest consumers in Europe," said Eric Vigoureux, the national vice president of the French Fédération de la Boucherie Hippophagique (horse meat butchers), in a 2008 article by The New York Times. "Even classic Italian Mortadella sausage can be had in a horse meat variety," the newspaper reported.
Lean and tender, horse meat tastes like a slightly sweeter version of beef and venison. On sandwiches, it is commonly served as a smoked and salted cold cut, called hamburgerkött (hamburger meat) in Sweden. Known as "Basashi" in Japan, horsemeat is sliced and eaten raw.