Growing populations of wild horses in the inland Northwest are creating headaches for federal land managers. Wild and feral horse herds overrun tribal lands in our region too.
Tribal range managers have one option that federal agencies don't, which is to send unwanted horses to foreign slaughterhouses. That's helping several Northwest tribes make headway to reduce populations of free-roaming horses, but not without creating some dismay.
Jason Smith, the range manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, offered me a ride in his pickup truck to look for wild horses. It took just a few minutes to find the first group. Then another pair. And even more around the next bend -- chestnuts, bays, Appaloosas and pintos.
They seemingly grazed wherever they wanted along the back roads of the arid reservation.
‘An overgrazed system’
Smith pointed out a mare there that probably had a foal on her. “The reason she's so ribby and high backboned is poor vegetation, an overgrazed system and she may have age on her,” he explained.
The brown hills around the reservation were grazed practically down to the nub. Smith also pointed out trampled, eroding stream banks.
"That affects the fisheries and water quality,” he said.
Other inland Northwest tribes are grappling with the same issue. They include the Yakama and Colville in Washington, the Umatilla in northeast Oregon and Shoshone-Bannock in eastern Idaho.
Smith said he gets complaints about too many hungry horses from many sides including cattle ranchers, deer and elk hunters, and tribal members who gather edible and medicinal plants.
"We're in year four of a major horse reduction program -- or process -- on our reservation,” he said. “We're a little bit over 4,000 head of horses that we've moved in the last four years."
From spring through fall, Smith said his department organizes small roundups most every week. Cowboys bring captured wild horses to a central corral for sorting.
"The hard part is finding a place to take them or send 'em once you capture them,” he said.
Selling horses for slaughter
Smith said the highest quality horses may be put up for adoption or trained to become saddle horses. The others -- the majority -- are being sold to a feedlot. They mostly end up at a horse meat packing house in Canada, or less commonly in Mexico.
Wild horse advocates argue horse slaughter is inhumane. It's effectively banned in the U.S. by act of Congress. Wild horses gathered from federal lands are kept in indefinite holding if they can't be adopted out. Tribes have more flexibility than federal agencies by virtue of their status as sovereign nations.
Activist Marika Ruppe of Mosier, Oregon, estimated "thousands" of wild horses were sent to slaughter in Canada from several Northwest reservations this year. She focused on the Yakama reservation this summer.
"These round-ups that I have personally witnessed are very cruel, inhumane and very disturbing,” Ruppe said.
One thing that outraged observers like Ruppe was seeing "terrified" foals separated from their mothers. Ruppe said she also observed wild horses with "broken jaws" and "deep wounds" delivered to a private, off-reservation corral.
"I understand that it is a very touchy situation,” Ruppe said. “I understand that Native Americans have not been dealt a very fair hand. I think that many people outside of the reservations are very wary of calling them out per se or at least bringing attention to what is going on with their tribal horses.”
More birth control?
Yakama Nation officials declined multiple requests for comment. Last year, a tribal biologist testified that about 12,000 wild and feral horses are roaming its lands. The tribal wildlife department issues permits to individuals to carry out roundups.
A National Academy of Sciences review of federal wild horse management recommended greater use of birth control injections to control overpopulation. Horse lovers want to see that happen on tribal lands too.
University of Missouri biology professor Lori Eggert, who took part in the National Academy report, said "extensive and consistent" contraception can stabilize a horse population on a range.
"It is not over the short term going to take these horses down population-wise,” Eggert said. “It will simply slow the growth. There may have to continue to be some gathers and removals from the range until these populations come down."
Injecting wild mares with birth control on a regular schedule seemed impractical to the tribal range managers I heard from. Jason Smith of Warm Springs said his tribe does have a castration program. He said it castrates 100-150 wild stallions per year to help with population control.
The question of how to proceed in some ways boils down to different world views. People from animal advocacy groups describe wild horses as intelligent, magnificent creatures, symbols of the West and the embodiment of freedom on the open range. On the reservation, rodeo champion Smith said the horse is a "really respected animal," but fits another category.
"Warm Springs has always considered the horse as their livestock,” he explained. “It is just like cattle is, livestock. We love our horses. They are our tool. They are our work force."
Smith said he's looking forward to the next wild horse inventory on the Warm Springs reservation next spring. He's hoping to see a major decline in numbers from the 5,700 to 6,000 horses counted by an aerial survey in 2011.
Economics of tribal wild horse management
People with an interest in wild horse management also are keeping an eye on Congress. Members of Congress must soon decide whether to keep a de facto ban on domestic horse slaughter for human consumption. The 2014 federal budget signed by President Obama barred the U.S. Agriculture Department from spending money on inspections necessary to operate commercial horse slaughterhouses.
The last domestic horse processing facilities closed in 2007 after an earlier Congress withheld funding to provide inspections. That is why horses destined for slaughter are exported to Canada or Mexico.
Last year, the Warm Springs tribe and Yakama Nation joined a lawsuit in federal court in defense of the planned opening of a private slaughterhouse in New Mexico. In written testimony, Yakama Nation biologist James Stephenson described how high transportation costs have undermined the economics of tribal wild horse management.
"Before cessation of horse slaughter in the United States, members of the Yakama Nation could sell horses at a price of approximately $150 to $400 per animal. Now, if you can find a buyer, such horses are often sold for prices of $5 to $20 per head," Stephenson wrote.
Wild horse advocacy groups are marshaling their arguments to prevent any resumption of domestic horse slaughter. In addition, sympathetic senators and representatives have proposed to go further and ban the transport and export of American horses to foreign slaughterhouses.
However, those measures have not advanced in a gridlocked Congress.
Meanwhile, a Prineville, Oregon-based nonprofit proposes to open a completely different type of facility from a slaughterhouse to take horses removed from tribal lands. Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition founder Gayle Hunt envisions a "horse gentling" program where prison inmates could break wild horses and train more of them to be suitable for adoption or sale as riding horses.
"Problem offenders within the community are actually rehabilitated at the same time they are rehabilitating the wild horses of Warm Springs," Hunt said while describing her vision.
She credits the idea to a Nevada Department of Corrections program that uses inmates to saddle-train wild horses gathered by the Bureau of Land Management from public lands in Nevada and Oregon.