ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico is ground zero, at least for today, in the national controversy over horse slaughtering in the U.S.
U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo is scheduled to hear legal arguments on a request to block a Roswell company’s plan to begin domestic horse slaughter, possibly becoming the first slaughterhouse to resume operations in the U.S. since 2007.
Meanwhile, a southeastern Iowa company says it is ready to begin slaughtering horses within days if the New Mexico federal court rejects the requested injunction.
The lawsuit, filed by six animal rights groups and others, has various Native American leaders lined up in support and in opposition.
The Confederate Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation have intervened in the case in support of horse slaughter, while members of the Sioux tribe, the Mescalero Apaches, the Minikoju Band of the Cheyenne River Tribe Lakota Indians and a horsewoman from the Blackfoot tribe are seeking to block Valley Meat Company of Roswell from starting horse slaughtering operations.
Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa, could start horse slaughtering as soon as Monday, according to the Des Moines Register.
The Iowa company has hired Albuquerque attorney Pat Rogers to intervene in the New Mexico case, which alleges that the U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to conduct proper environmental reviews before issuing new permits to slaughter horses.
The company contends that the New Mexico injunction request has caused its plant to remain idle and has a “direct and significant impact” on its ability to operate the facility, according to a court filing.
The last U.S. slaughter plant to process horse meat for human consumption closed in 2007 after Congress approved an appropriations bill that prevented the U.S. Department of Agriculture from funding horse meat inspections. That provision remained in subsequent appropriations bills until 2011, when Congress quietly removed it from an omnibus spending act, effectively clearing the way for resumption of domestic horse slaughter.
Although the USDA opposes horse slaughter, it issued permits after being sued by Valley Meat Co.
An affidavit filed with the court by a big-game biologist employed by the Yakama Nation – represented in New Mexico by Albuquerque attorney John Boyd – said the feral horse population on its south-central Washington state reservation soared from an estimated 6,000 head in 2006 to a current population of about 12,000.
“Given our observations of colt production, we estimate the population will double every four years because we have no economically viable opportunity to humanely reduce this population, namely horse slaughter,” the biologist, James Stephenson, wrote in the affidavit.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs range management program determined the Yakama Nation’s land in the 1990s could adequately support a population of 1,000 horses.
Stephenson’s affidavit states that overgrazing by the horses has “decimated the forage resources used by the Yakama Nation’s cattle” and caused increased silt runoff into nearby streams that harms fishing resources and species. Tribal members gathering food and medicine plants are having encounters with harem stallions that endanger their safety, Stephenson stated.
“I believe it critical to allow horse slaughter again in the United States because without it, the Yakama Nation is suffering massive economic and environmental damage,” the affidavit says.
In New Mexico, Navajo Nation leaders this week expressed similar concern, contending their reservation cannot support an estimated 75,000 feral horses roaming there.
Joining animal rights groups in opposing the opening of the Roswell slaughterhouse, plaintiff Roxanne Talltree-Douglas, a Blackfoot horsewoman, says in the lawsuit that she and her Native American tribe “deeply respect the horse nation.”
“She follows the Blackfoot belief that horses are spirit beings that were put on Mother Earth to teach us how to live, love and exist and that hitting or hurting a horse is the same as spitting in the face of the Creator,” states the plantiffs’ injunction request.
Apart from court consideration of the requested injunction, a suspected arson-caused fire last week at the Roswell plant could delay its planned startup. The extent of damage to the company’s refrigeration system is expected to be determined today.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.