ALBUQUERQUE — The Navajo Nation says it will end its wild horse roundups and reverse its public support for a return to domestic horse slaughter following talks with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said Tuesday that he met with Richardson over the weekend and they agreed to work together to find more long-term and humane solutions to the horse overpopulation problem.
Richardson and actor Robert Redford created the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife this summer to fight efforts by Valley Meat Co., a Roswell-based company, and others to slaughter horses.
Shortly after the foundation was announced, the Navajo Nation came out in support of the company, saying it has 75,000 feral horses drinking wells dry and causing ecological damage to the drought-stricken range. It has also been rounding up and selling horses, knowing some would likely make their way to horse slaughter plants south of the border.
But in a statement issued Tuesday, Shelly said the tribe will pull back its support for the plant and suspend horse roundups while it works with the foundation and other groups to develop and implement alternative policies to manage feral horse populations. Possible solutions include equine birth control, adoption, land management and public education.
"Our land is precious to the Navajo people as are all the horses on the Navajo Nation. Horses are sacred animals to us. Both the land and the animals must be responsibly managed," Shelly said in a statement. "For too long this issue has gone unaddressed putting us in the situation we are today where chapters are facing real problems with uncared for animals damaging local land and domestic livestock. I am thankful we can partner with agencies that have resources to help us find real long-term solutions."
Richardson said that persuading Shelly to change his position on horse roundups and slaughter "is exactly the outcome horse advocates, such as myself, had hoped for."
As the tribe's roundups took place in the Northern Agency in September, the Shiprock Chapter voted to remove itself from the schedule and instead to develop its own solution to the feral horse problem.
Chapter president Duane "Chili" Yazzie declined to comment on Shelly's decision but said the chapter is continuing to develop its solution.
"We will proceed with a chapter-based feral horse roundup, but we don't anticipate doing it until this winter," Yazzie said.
He added that the chapter is considering luring the horses into corrals with hay and water to trap them.
"We won't subscribe to tracking them down with ATVs and torturing them," he said.
Leland Grass, a member of Diné for Wild Horses who has been outspoken about the roundups, was disappointed with Richardson and Shelly because they did not talk to the tribal elders and medicine people before making the agreement.
Grass said that throughout the entire process, he has asked to talk to Shelly but has had no success. He said that this is just another misstep by the president.
"He already played with our emotions with those roundups," Grass said. "He did damage already."
Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for plant inspectors in 2006. The ban was lifted in 2011, and Valley Meat Co. has been battling ever since for permission to open its converted cattle slaughterhouse. The USDA issued a permit this summer, but litigation by animal protection groups has delayed its planned August opening.
The return to domestic slaughter has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes about what is the most humane way to deal with the country's horse overpopulation. Much of the debate also focuses on whether they are companion animals or livestock.
Supporters of a return to domestic horse slaughter argue that it is a more humane solution than shipping unhealthy and starving animals south of the border to facilities with unregulated and often cruel circumstances.
Opponents have been pushing for a ban that would also outlaw the shipment of horses across the border.