Editorial: Feral horses damage tribal land

The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs have a horse problem. Some 5,000 feral horses roam reservation lands, and the tribes have no good way to get rid of them.

They’ve written to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, which includes Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to ask for money to pay meat inspectors in horse meat slaughterhouses in the U.S. Money for the inspectors was cut off in 2006. That year, some $65 million worth of horse meat was shipped from the U.S. to countries in which it is regularly eaten.

As Jason Smith, range manager for the Warm Springs tribes and president of the National Tribal Horse Coalition, noted, feral horses pose difficult problems. Though horses on Indian reservations are not protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, they create many of the same difficulties on both kinds of land.

As nonnative animals, horses have few natural controls on herd size in the American West, and as a result a herd can double in the space of only five years. They’re grazers and herd animals, and the combination means serious damage to the Western lands on which they live.

Yet the horses have taken on an almost mythical quality in American life. Say “wild horse” and people see the Old West of movies, if not of history. They do not see ruined rangeland or the demise of the native plants and animals that live on them.

Since horses became protected, their numbers have grown to the point that the federal Bureau of Land Management, which must maintain herds but not let them overrun the land, rounds up thousands each year, then pays for their care until they are adopted or die. In 2009, more than half of the agency’s $50 million wild-horse budget went to caring for captured-but-unadopted animals.

The Warm Springs and other tribes, meanwhile, have a legal right to sell animals on their own land for slaughter. But without U.S. inspectors, it’s a right that cannot be exercised. Money for slaughterhouse inspectors would be the first step to correcting the situation.