The question of equine slaughter has been a hot-button issue in the West, where horses hold an iconic role as loyal companions. Animal welfare groups have expressed outrage at the idea of resuming domestic slaughter, which Congress effectively banned in 2006 by cutting funding for federal inspection programs.
Others, including some animal welfare groups, contend the ban has resulted in increased horse abuse and abandonment and booming wild horse populations on state, federal and tribal lands.
No group is perhaps more affected by the matter than the Yakama Nation, a Washington tribe with an estimated 12,000 wild horses roaming across its sprawling reservation in the arid, south-central part of the state, Yakama Nation Chairman Harry Smiskin said in a March 29 letter to President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
"We don't understand why it is OK to slaughter many animals in this country - certainly the White House and the USDA have meat on their cafeteria menus every day - but for some reason horses are considered sacrosanct," Smiskin wrote. "We should not manage these horses based on purely emotional arguments, story books or movies we all saw as children."
Smiskin argued the market for horse meat in other parts of the world, as well as the United States before World War II, could create jobs, humanely reduce overpopulated herds and feeds others, adding "it is absurd to prohibit it."
Smiskin declined to talk about the letter in a telephone interview Monday.
Congress lifted the slaughter ban in a spending bill the president signed into law in November. Now the USDA is preparing to inspect a southern New Mexico meat company that has been fighting for more than a year for approval to convert its former cattle slaughter operation into a horse slaughterhouse.
Valley Meat Co. sued the USDA last year to resume the inspections, and the agency said last month it had no choice legally but to move forward with the application, as well as several others. However, the Obama administration threw a new twist into the more than yearlong debate with a statement urging Congress to reinstate the ban.
Several Northwest tribes have joined together in support of opening a horse slaughterhouse in the region to address booming wild horse populations on their reservations. The Yakama and Colville tribes in Washington, the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes in Oregon, and Shoshone Bannock in Idaho say the horses destroy medicinal plants and damage habitat for other species.