Horse industry hit hard
Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal by an Illinois horse processing plant closed last year due to state law. The plant, run by Cavel International, was the last to close after Texas and Illinois passed laws banning the use of horses for human consumption.
The news comes at a time when consequences of the ban, coupled with record feed and transportation costs, are resulting in reports of horses abandoned on public lands. In early May, the Rocky Mountain News reported the discovery of a domestic horse on Colorado public lands. In the article, BLM spokeswoman Mel Lloyd said it was not the first incident and people caught abandoning horses are subject to state and federal penalties. She said domestic horses released in the wild are shunned or assaulted by wild horse herds and domestic horses can spread devastating disease to wild herds.
With approximately 99,000 horses in Wyoming, it was only a matter of time before the issue hit the Cowboy State. Wyoming Livestock Board District Supervisor Gary Zakotnik verified the presence of three domestic horses released in the Rock Springs area. He said the animals were discovered with halters still on and said they assume the animals had been turned out.
“Those who thought they were doing a humane thing [to stop slaughter in the U.S.] should be ashamed of themselves,” says Zakotnik.
Wyoming Livestock Board Director Jim Schwartz says there are no official statewide numbers of horses being turned out. But, he says when the BLM gathers wild horses there could be a tremendous number of horses that weren’t previously there.
“We’ve been hearing from brand inspectors across the state,” says Schwartz. “We have to do something with [the horses] but we don’t really have a solution.”
Justin Williams, ag program coordinator with the Natural Resources division of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, says the department is “very aware of concerns from the ranching industry.” He pointed specifically to those who own remote areas and work with allotments that house wild horses. Williams says there are people who can’t afford hay who might consider turning their horses out, if they haven’t already.
“Clearly there are domesticated horses that are turned out,” Williams says. “In the past people could run down to the sale, but with the prices of horses so low and not being able to ship to slaughter, people are having to pay to euthanize or hold on to animals longer than they normally would. With hay prices where they are, it’s a lose-lose situation to continue to pay for horses that aren’t usable.”
The growing abandonment problem has hit several states but the scale of the issue is unclear. U.S. BLM Wild Horses and Burros Division Chief Don Glenn says although there are reports of domestic horses being abandoned on federal lands, there are no national statistics. He says it is nearly impossible to track the numbers because his division is working with 33,000 horses on 29 million acres.
The Wyoming BLM office is also feeling effects of the current situation. Public Affairs Specialist for the Wyoming BLM Cindy Wertz says the agency is seeing a decrease in the wild horse and burro adoption numbers in the state and nationwide.
“Adopting a horse is a big investment and I think people are rethinking that investment at this time,” she says.
The effects of the ban and the economy are also showing up in Wyoming’s horse auctions. The state’s sale barns are reporting a decline in numbers of horses and a similar decline in sale prices. Joe Vodicka, partner and manager of Central Wyoming Livestock in Glenrock, says horse numbers are “definitely down quite a bit.” Vodicka hasn’t seen any horses left behind, but says he has seen situations where the horse sold for less than expenses from the sale.
“There’s been nothing serious yet, but it could get that way,” he says. “I’m afraid horses will be dropped off anywhere on big ranches or in the Red Desert. It’s probably going to start happening.”
Vodicka says the solution to the problem is to reinstate horse processing in the U.S. He says the travel time for processing in the country was much more reasonable.
“It is more humane to slaughter in the U.S. than hauling 1,000 miles to Mexico or 900 miles to Canada,” he says. “All the guys who haul horses out of here do things right, but when you get 1,000 miles on that horse it’s not very fun for them.”
The Billings Livestock Commission reported a strong horse market but Horse Sale Manager Bill Parker says low-quality horses have almost no value. Parker also attributes the plummeting values to high freight costs. He said most low-quality horses are worth less than the freight costs to processing plants in Mexico and Canada. Parker also says he is starting to see more cases of abandoned horses at the Billings facility.
“We have half a dozen standing back there,” he says. “If we had plants running in the U.S. it would make things easier.”
The saving grace under the horse-processing ban is a horse owner’s ability to ship their animals to Mexico and Canada for processing. However, with growing concerns over inhumane conditions in Mexico, new legislation threatens that outlet.
Amendments to the Horse Protection Act are currently in the works in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 503) and the U.S. Senate (S. 311). The amendments would “prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption.”
The legislation would be a “disaster,” Parker says. “If they pass the bill as it reads, which is to prohibit horses for shipment to slaughter, we will see starving horses standing everywhere,” he says. “We’ll have to double-padlock the gates and put a guard on it at night. That’s not speculative, that’s just cold-hard facts.”
Parker encourages people to keep calling their senators to encourage them to oppose the legislation and encourage reinstatement of horse processing in the U.S.
Liz LeSatz is the Summer 2008 intern for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.