The nation's public lands chief offered a few solutions Tuesday to keeping the West's population of 38,000 free-roaming wild horses and burros in check -- but turning them into horse meat for humans to eat wasn't one of them.
"They're part of our nation's heritage, and they need to be protected," Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said after addressing a forum in Las Vegas aimed at lifting a congressional ban that quashed U.S. processing plants that produced horse meat for human consumption.
"We are not entertaining the use of slaughterhouses or selling horses for slaughter at all. I'm not going to speak to private horses or livestock, but as it relates to wild horses, we believe that there are better options available to us," he said.
One key option, Abbey said, is continuing the effort to thin down wild horse and burro herds through helicopter roundups and adopt out as many as possible. At the same time, many of the mares released back to the ranges should be given a birth control drug, known as PZP, or porcine zona pellucida.
The vaccine derived from pigs' eggs makes mares temporarily infertile. It is being tested in 11 gathers of wild horses in Nevada, Idaho and Utah.
If it proves successful, Abbey said, the time between gathers can be reduced, easing the burden on holding facilities where 38,000 are kept in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota. That's about equal to the number of free-roaming wild horses and burros on BLM herd management areas -- 38,365 -- in 10 Western states.
Abbey said one part of the solution is to explore an offer by Madeleine Pickens, wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, to create a wild horse sanctuary on ranch land and public land in herd management areas in Northern Nevada.
"Her idea has merit and deserves serious consideration," Abbey said.
Organizers at the forum, titled "Summit of the Horse" and being held this week at South Point, are launching a movement to lift the 2007 ban on using federal money to pay for horse carcass inspectors. The ban closed U.S. slaughterhouses for horses, sending the business of selling domestic horses for meat to Canada and Mexico.
With no outlet for horses in the U.S. slaughter industry, the problem on open ranges, private ranches and American Indian reservations has been compounded by more and more domestic horses being kicked loose because the nation's economic recession has put the price of hay out of reach for many horse owners, said forum organizer Sue Wallis, vice president of United Horsemen, an event sponsor.
In her view, rather than the government spending tens of millions of dollars every year on horse welfare for unwanted and abandoned horses, the government should let free enterprise be a part of the solution to prevent ranges from being ravaged by overpopulation of wild and former domestic horses.
Wallis and invited speakers described their slaughterhouse solution as more humane than letting the animals starve to death or die of thirst on the ranges.
Since the ban, Wallis said, the United States has been importing more than 1 millions pounds per year of horse meat to feed lions and tigers at zoos. "Horse meat is high in protein and low in fats. It fits the zoo diet for cats," she said.
China and Mexico are the largest consumers of horse meat, which she described as "very dark red, a combination between beef and elk."
She cited the National Agricultural Statistic Service that puts China at the top of the list of horse meat for human consumption.
Keynote speaker Charlie Stenholm, a former Texas congressman, advised attendees at the summit that they need to be diplomatic in their push to lift the ban on funding horse carcass inspectors at meat processing plants because "it's not easy being a spokesperson for the horse slaughter industry. It's not a pleasant subject."
Nevertheless, Stenholm said, "those who want to make horses pets instead of livestock, be careful. You might get what you ask for. Pets are not tax deductible."
The preamble to any bill to lift the horse slaughterhouse ban should include words such as it "gives horses the best chance of living a humane life from birth to death."
Before one session Tuesday, Bennie "BlueThunder" LeBeau, an "earth healer" of the Eastern Shoshone Nation, pounded a drum and sang a prayer to offer respect for every living thing to exist in harmony with nature's laws.
On that panel, Katherine Minthorn Good Luck of the Pendleton, Ore., Intertribal Agriculture Agency described how horses that have been released on tribal lands are ruining the ranges for all wildlife.
"The problem we have on reservations is nationwide, not just in the Northwest," she said.
She linked the problem to rising hay prices, which results in the public abandoning horses on reservation lands.
The Yakama Nation in Washington has more than 12,000 horses in a confined area. "The problems they're encountering is devastation of the land," she said.
In a telephone interview, Ginger Kathrens, volunteer executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of wild horses and burros on public lands, said claims made at the forum were "insanely blown out of proportion."
"You would think there are millions of wild horses roaming the West," she said. "It's pathetic how small the herds are, how underpopulated they are."
By comparison, Kathrens said, there are on average 7,700 cattle on 1.3 million acres in Nevada's Antelope Valley where the BLM allows only 407 wild horses on that range.
"That's the statistic that's common to all their management. The pie is so slender for wild horses," she said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.