WARM SPRINGS INDIAN RESERVATION —
Here on this reservation in north-central Oregon, horses are woven deeply into daily life. They are traditionally used by tribal members in their work and their culture, whether it be for rodeos or horse parades.
Gathering, breaking and selling wild horses has long been part of the tribe's economy. Horses that don't make the grade are sold for slaughter.
But the nation's final three slaughterhouses were shuttered two years ago, and a perfect storm has formed with a glut of horses, lack of a market and economic recession.
Tribal rangeland managers now estimate 20,000 wild horses are overrunning Indian Country in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, with an annual foal crop raising the population by some 20 percent a year.
....Agricultural and rangeland experts from five tribes have been meeting quietly since last winter to explore options to manage horse populations on reservation lands. Their ideas, still in discussion, run the gamut.
The most controversial: opening a slaughter plant at the Warm Springs reservation, and maybe someday packing the meat for human consumption overseas, if the regulatory hurdles can be cleared and economics pencil out.
....There used to be a thriving horse market in this country, with buyers bidding on horses for processing plants in Stanwood; Maytown, Thurston County; and more than 20 other plants across the country, supplying an eager trade, particularly in Europe.
But the country's remaining three horse slaughterhouses, in Illinois and Texas, closed in 2007 after a sustained campaign by animal-rights activists that resulted in Congress forbidding USDA inspection of horse meat for human consumption. That ended any legal commercial packing industry for horse meat in this country.
Still, there is a demand for horse meat, particularly in Europe. But with no packer competition in the U.S. to supply it, and a glut of horses, foreign packers can set their price.
Trucking the animals long distances to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico also means buyers will take only the fattest, biggest animals.
For the sick, the old, and the skinny, today there is often no market at any price. Buyers who remember paying 70 cents a pound at auction are today paying as little as 6 cents a pound — if the packers will even take the animal.
....The bottom has fallen out of the horse market just as the recession is driving even owners of pedigreed, suburban stock to unload animals they can't afford to care for, overwhelming rescue and shelter operators.
It's the same story for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is struggling to feed and care for some 30,000 wild mustangs gathered from public rangelands and put out to pasture in the Midwest in deference to opponents of slaughter.
The BLM is paying $27 million this year alone to feed and care for wild horses living out their days at taxpayer expense. With another 30,000 or so more wild mustangs still roaming the range, multiplying every year, the costs are growing. So far, the BLM has no solution to the problem.