Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tribal Horses – published in Range Magazine

There are 530 American Indian tribes in the 48 contiguous states. Tribes control about  20% of the land mass in reservations. Most of the western reservations are overflowing with abandoned and feral horses. Left unchecked, excess horses will eat the white sage in Nevada, prairie grasses in Wyoming, high desert forage in Arizona . They will starve out the deer, elk, antelope, and sage grouse in Washington. They will destroy the salmon habitat, sacred ceremonial plants, all before they destroy themselves. When they do, and the feral horses are gone, what will be left?
For as well known as the horse market heartbreak is to RANGE readers, much less is known about the horse overpopulation devastating American Indian reservations. These are horses not reported in any national census, they are not included on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) counts, no horse industry organizations even attempt to keep track. If they aren’t BLM horses, or privately owned horses, they are basically ignored.
Though no one is keeping any sort of scientific accounting of excess horses on tribal lands, there are startling numbers out there. Here are a few horse counts as reported to me:  

  • Yakama Tribe, northern Washington, 16,000 head of feral horses
  • Warm Springs Tribe, central Oregon, 6,000 head;
  • Navajo Nation, Arizona, 60,000 -75,000 head.
  • Shoshone-Bannock, Idaho, 500-600 head

There are dozens more reservations, how many feral or abandoned horses on them is anybodies guess.
Inside and outside of Indian country, the U.S. horse market as we knew it is in the tank. No part of the industry, or its satellites, have been spared. Horse ranchers, livestock auction owners, veterinarians, horse rescue missions, trainers, rodeo contractors, and horse enthusiasts throughout America are well aware of the dismal market for horses.  Tragic stories include 7,000 horses abandoned on the Appalachian Trail, 350 in the hills east of Los Angeles, some eastern states posting guards on state parks to ensure no horses are left within. The numbers of abandoned and abused horses increases yearly as financially strapped families lose their homes and corrals.
Since 2007, when the last horse processing plant closed, horse owners have faced a perfect storm of the market crash and depressed economy, and no legal way to dispose of valueless horses.  This downturn results in  460,000 direct horse industry jobs lost, and over a million jobs in manufacturing, sales, and service at feed stores, saddle shops, and horse-related services, nationwide. At a time when record unemployment is a national concern, these are jobs America cannot afford to lose.
“All our models of dealing with abandoned, feral, or estray (undetermined ownership) horses, were based on the horses having a value,” says Chuck Jacobs, a Sioux from South Dakota. “Without that value, we have a huge problem, and no tools.”
This national man-made disaster has hit tribes hard. This past January, at the South Point Casino in Las Vegas, the United Horsemen (a 501c3 non profit educational and charitable organization devoted to the well being of horses and horse people)  hosted an international forum to address these problems. At least a dozen tribes were represented, and many members were invited to speak. It was a lively and spirited discussion, but not a debate. Every attendee agreed that something needs to be done to alleviate the damage that equine overpopulation has done to America.
At the Summit we heard from Jason Smith, Warm Springs Tribes, who talked about their efforts to utilize local feral horses, and create local jobs. Warm Springs has petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs for funds to study the creation of a horse processing plant--perhaps a module type that could be disassembled and moved from tribe to tribe.
Dr. Glenda Davis,Program Director, Navajo Nation Veterinary and Livestock Program, had to tell us twice--60,000 to 75,000 feral horses? That is a hard number to imagine. A thousand corrals full, a thousand truckloads. During long, cold winters, hot dry summers, these starving, defenceless animals draw predators like a magnet. Once the die-off is over, the next thing on the menu will be Navajo chickens, sheep, goats, calves, and colts. “Navajos, beware.”
Jim Stephenson, Big Game Biologist and Wild Horse Project Leader for the Yakama Nation Wildlife Program describes for us a traditional system of horse management that has been abruptly eliminated by the loss of a market for slaughter horses. What he describes in reference to the Yakama Nation can probably be overlaid on just about any other land-based tribe in the country...especially in the semi-arid grasslands of the West. 

“Wild horses are an integral part of Yakama tradition and culture.  In the early days horses were used for transportation and packing.  In this modern age horses are still used by Yakama cattlemen, as well as for hunting, rodeos and parades.

In the earlier period horses herds were managed by individual families and their numbers were generally kept in balance with the available forage.  Historic evidence indicates that Yakama people were capturing horses for the slaughter market at least as far back as the first part of the last century.  For many years the slaughter market as well as the market for saddle stock was what kept horse numbers at more or less a sustainable level.

For the past few years fewer and fewer horses were being captured and sold and for the last 4-5 years almost no horses have been gathered due to loss of viable markets.  During the last four years horse numbers have doubled from approximately 6000 to over 12,000 head.  This is at least 10-12 times the carrying capacity of the land and most of the forage is completely gone on the majority of the 400,000 acre range area.  On a condition scale of one to ten most of the horses fall at or below a three.

This situation has created an ecosystem breakdown that has impacted game animals including deer, elk and bighorn sheep, game birds including the recently re-introduced sage grouse, cultural food and medicine plants, and fish and other aquatic resources including endangered salmonids.   There is already a considerable loss of native plants and if the situation isn’t resolved soon recovery will take decades and in many areas the landscape won’t recover without a substantial effort at restoration.”

“It has created what I call a broken spoke within the wheel and the wheel is beginning to wobble within the ecosystem.  Which in fact is on the verge of collapsing!” says Arlen Washines, Yakama, “A resource going unchecked is the sound of death to other resources that rely on the same or identical food sources, not to include the damage to the soil and water.  The loss of traditional ceremonial foods and medicines is and would be devastating to tribal members when all of our ceremonies rely on them for subsistence.  The question is, do we sacrifice all of our sacred foods and medicines to protect the very source that is damaging them?”
Washines speaks for the tribes, and for the rest of us impacted by too many feral horses without a slaughter market to sell to when he says, “unless a management control method is created, including humane slaughter, within the next five years, our Yakama Herd will grow to enormous size uncontrollably.  At some point in time, all will be lost! Remember, it is a human problem, not a horse problem.  And we as humans can change our ways--but, the horse cannot!”
The day is not far away when the tribes who care about their land, their sacred plants, their  wildlife, and their livelihoods will have to not only contemplate, but have to implement drastic measures to eliminate thousands and thousands of feral horses to protect the ecological balance of native lands. How much better that would be if it were not a total waste, if that good meat could be used to feed starving children? If the tribes could receive good value for their excess horses? Re-employ their traditional horse catchers, and provide new jobs in modern state-of-the-art processing facilities?
What HSUS/PETA did when they closed the horse slaughter plants was to take one fairly responsible and workable solution, and turn it into a plethora of nasty, unsolvable, expensive problems. For the sake of the tribes, their horses, their homelands, and their long-term futures we need to restore the markets for horse meat, and allow them to return to their traditional methods of management. We need to help fix the broken spoke in Arlen Washines’ wobbly wheel.
For more information, or to view the entire proceedings of the Summit of the Horse, visit

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