Horse people hope the new year will bring a solution to an old problem: too many horses.
A horse summit planned for the first week of the year is expected to draw to Las Vegas representatives from Northwest tribes, federal agencies and conservation groups, as well as wildlife advocates, and horse people vexed by too many horses with no market to cull the herds.
"It's bad and getting worse," said Sue Wallis, a Wyoming legislator and member of United Horsemen, a Wyoming-based nonprofit organizing the summit.
She backs development of a plant in Wyoming where horses can be slaughtered for human consumption -- a solution she says is the humane and ethical solution to the problem.
"We are not just some meat-industry schmucks," she said of slaughter supporters. "What we need is humane and regulated horse processing in the U.S. where we can control it and we can set really high standards. We are horse people concerned about the well-being of the horse."
The Yakama, Warm Springs, Shoshone-Bannock, Paiute, Crow, Apache, Navajo and Pueblo tribes are among those expected to talk about horse troubles, as herds keep multiplying on tribal lands, destroying a fragile balance of land and wildlife.
The horse has proved tricky to reckon with: Neither wildlife nor livestock intentionally grown for slaughter, growing horse populations have defied a solution since the U.S. slaughter industry for horses was shut down in 2007 by animal-rights activists, many of whom objected to the way the animals were treated and killed.
While the slaughter industry is still technically legal in this country, a congressional ban on spending federal money to pay inspectors of horse carcasses intended for human consumption, primarily overseas, killed the industry.
Horse populations have been building ever since, as the bottom fell out of the market that helped tribes and other horse managers keep numbers in check.
Today, horses are trucked to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, and many more are overpopulating public and tribal lands, to the detriment, land managers say, of wildlife, native plants and the health of the range.
The Bureau of Land Management estimates it has nearly 12,000 more horses on its lands than the range can support, and the agency is feeding more than 11,400 corralled animals it can't find adopters for.
The BLM spent $36.9 million in 2010 alone just to feed and care for horses it has rounded up and confined in corrals and put out to pasture in long-term holding facilities in the Midwest. And the cost is going up.
Many seek solutions
United Horsemen members want to see a solution in 2011, Wallis said.
Tribes, too, are seeking an answer. The Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition has morphed into the National Tribal Horse Coalition, as other tribes join with Northwest nations that last year embarked on a feasibility study of opening a slaughter facility on tribal lands.
That study, paid for by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is expected back soon and will help guide tribes' decision making, said coalition president Jason Smith, of the Warm Springs tribe in Oregon.
The Yakama reservation offers a good look at the problem. There, wild horses pour over the backcountry of the reservation, fast, liquid and in growing numbers. Their beauty is part of the problem, stoking a mystique around wild horses that has made them a hard problem to talk about.
Like feral cats, the horses multiply at a prodigious rate: With no natural predators, and these days, no market for purchase, the herds are estimated at about 12,000 animals and growing.
That's up from about 500 animals in the 1950s; 2,500 in the 1990s; and more than 4,500 in 2006. Carrying capacity of the tribe's rangeland was about 1,000 horses in 2007, and it's significantly less than that today because of continued degradation from overgrazing, said Jim Stephenson, big-game biologist and wild-horse project leader for the Yakama Nation.
By now, deer are mostly gone from several of the game units he helps manage for the tribe, Stephenson said, because of competition from horses. The tribe is also worried about how grazing pressure from horses is affecting its efforts to re-establish populations of sage grouse and reintroduce pronghorn antelope to the reservation this winter.
On Toppenish Ridge, horses move like smoke over the open landscape. The tallest thing around is the piles of manure, all that's left on rangeland cropped bare by herds of horses. Their hoofs have corrugated hills with hoof-beaten trails, and the ground is eaten to blowing dust.
"They are beating it up so much we have no growth coming back," said David Blodgett Jr., a wildlife technician for the tribe. "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."
No longer in balance
In the past, the tribe lived in balance with these herds. Originally of Spanish origin, the herds today include descendants of domestic animals turned out by homesteaders, and lately, horses dumped by people too hammered by the recession and high cost of hay to keep their animals.
On a recent fall morning, tribal members were getting ready to mount up the "kidney crusher" -- a battered pickup used for horse roundups. The idea was to herd some of the horses into a temporary corral and once captured, sell them as saddle or pack animals and for slaughter -- the most likely outcome.
The tribe's pros at this tricky work used to do it all by horseback, "but our insurance lady won't let us do that any more," Blodgett said.
Crushed fingers, broken eye sockets, thumbs bitten off "just at the end," he noted. "It gets a little wild out here sometimes."
First floated publicly in spring 2009, the idea of a tribal horse-processing facility is controversial and runs into a thicket of regulatory and legal roadblocks, from food-safety concerns to international trade and the federal-inspection question.
There is also widespread popular opposition in a country long wedded to a romantic notion of the wild horses of the West.
"Horses are not food animals in this country; they are companions," said Scott Beckstead, Oregon state director for the Humane Society of the United States.
"My guess is they are scrambling to find a way to make it feasible, but they are fighting against the tide of public opinion."
Tribal members interested in the possibility of a processing facility hope the BIA study will help them determine if the idea is economically and legally viable, said Smith, of Warm Springs, who is range and agricultural land manager for his tribe.
"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."
At the Yakama reservation, the tribe doesn't have the luxury like the BLM of buying food for surplus horses at taxpayer expense. The horses eat exclusively on tribal rangeland.
On one ridge, a fence divides a lushly vegetated sweep of land from grassland open to grazing, bitten to the ground. Even with more rain than usual this season, time isn't healing this landscape, Stephenson said as he bumped over dirt roads crisscrossing the backcountry of the reservation, where horses stippled the hills.
"There needs to be a solution."