It's not often the federal government gets caught in the middle of a dispute between two groups on opposite sides of a highly charged emotional issue. But that's exactly what is happening across the country over the question of what to do with infirmed, abandoned, overpopulated or unwanted wild or domestic horses.
New and rapidly evolving incidents related to the issue are creating a soap opera atmosphere as corporate attorneys, the Nevada Association of Counties, animal protection groups, sympathetic celebrities, a State Attorney General, the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation, Native American tribes, and multiple federal agencies play roles in an escalating drama that is sparking emotions in the controversial issue of what to do with a growing animal problem.
In New Mexico, a state judge in Santa Fe heard arguments again Monday in a lawsuit filed by New Mexico Attorney General Gary King against Valley Meat Company of Roswell, a company that was issued a federal permit last summer to open a horse slaughterhouse but has been blocked by a series of lawsuits designed to keep the processing plant shuttered.
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The lawsuit charges the slaughterhouse operation would violate New Mexico's food safety laws, would further result in water quality issues and would also violate the state's unfair practices law.
Meanwhile, in Nevada, the sensitive question of what to do with an overpopulation of wild horses is at the center of a new federal lawsuit filed by the Nevada Association of Counties and the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation two weeks ago (Dec. 30) charging the federal government is mismanaging large wild horse and burro herds and is creating a dire situation where equine are in poor health and dying. Parties also claim the animals are causing serious damage to public and private land that can not support equine herds in such large numbers.
Named in that lawsuit are the United States Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, BLM Director Neil Kornze, BLM Assistant Director of Renewable Resources and Planning and BLM State Director Amy Leuders.
The latest Nevada lawsuit is based on the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which requires the BLM to “protect the natural ecological balance of all wildlife species which inhabit such lands, and to maintain a current inventory of wild free-roaming horses and burros on given areas of the public lands, and to remove excess animals.”
But plaintiffs in the case charge the BLM is failing to execute its duty by refusing to conduct round-ups of excess horse and burro numbers. They claim the federal agency stopped those activities after it was the subject of an earlier lawsuit filed by animal protection groups, and further charge that federal officials have acted negligently by allowing pressure from those groups to influence the performance of their duties.
BLM has previously indicated they will no longer round up wild horses and burros that might be sold at auction, most probably to wholesale buyers who would load them into overcrowded trailers for long distance transport to slaughter facilities across international borders.
In New Mexico the issue of domestic horse slaughtering continues to heat up. Valley Meat Company claims their facility would provide a needed service prompted by dire drought conditions over the last several years that has resulted in a stressed domestic horse market and excessive animal abandonment.
They say the situation resulted in horses and burros being sold to wholesale buyers at bottom-dollar prices, and contend that these animals face a fate worse than humane slaughter as they are transported in overcrowded trailers long distances to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.
Last July animal protection groups including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Front Range Equine Rescue were joined by actor Robert Redford, former U.S. Secretary of Energy and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and others, who filed a federal lawsuit in Albuquerque against the USDA, charging the federal agency with failing to follow U.S. environmental laws when it issued a federal permit for Valley Meat Company to open a horse slaughterhouse.
That lawsuit was subsequently thrown out by a federal judge, but an appeal was filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver. That appeal was also denied, but in an effort to continue blocking the meat company from opening, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging the Roswell plant would violate New Mexico's food safety laws, would further result in water quality issues and would violate the state's unfair practices law.
While a New Mexico state district judge imposed yet another temporary injunction to prevent the plant from opening, on Monday (Jan. 13), the court heard nine hours of testimony from expert witnesses. After closing arguments late in the day, State District Judge Matthew Wilson told both sides he would offer a ruling in the case by Friday. Until then, the opening of the plant remains in limbo.
In a new turn, a counter lawsuit may be pending, this one against King, charging the State Attorney General with slander and unlawfully attempting to block the opening of a legitimate business in New Mexico.
As the horse issue turns, Blair Dunn, the attorney for Valley Meat Company, has charged King with grandstanding on the issue with the intent of using the high publicity case to further his aspirations of becoming the next Governor of New Mexico.
A spokesman for Dunn last week said letters were sent to the state risk management division giving the required 30-day notice of a planned legal filing required before a lawsuit can be heard by the court.
In recent months arguments have ensued and tempers have flared over the issue of whether domestic horses are to be considered livestock or companion animals and whether protected wild horses should be rounded up and sold at auction.
The issue continues to divide horse owners, animal protection groups, ranchers and Indian tribes, and developments related to the issue continue to mount. But in spite of the differences of opinion, the legal battles and flaring tempers, most with an interest in the issue admit that in spite of the bickering and legal positioning, the plight of America's equine population continues to grow with little real solution in sight, and that stands in opposition to what both sides say is their primary concern.