The U.S. Forest Service late Thursday canceled a roundup of wild horses scheduled for Friday in northern Nevada after horse advocates learned about it and made it public, accusing the government of trying a “stealth” effort to break the law and send the horses to a slaughter auction.
The advocates said the Forest Service failed to give proper public notice of the roundup and was using an agreement with an Indian tribe to “launder” the horses so they could avoid public scrutiny and send the horses to slaughter.
After the threat of a lawsuit from the horse groups and questions from The Washington Times and other media outlets, the Forest Service relented.
“The U.S. Forest Service has decided to postpone the removal of horses on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada tomorrow in order to allow for better coordination of the process,” the agency said in a statement from its office in Carson City, Nev.
It’s the latest hiccup as the federal government battles with horse enthusiasts, who also are fighting to stop the government from resuming inspections of horse meat slaughterhouses. Without the inspections, the meatpacking plants cannot process the meat for human consumption.
Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack, whose department oversees the Forest Service and the Food Safety Inspection Service, said earlier this year that there should be a better way to treat horses than to have them slaughtered — though he didn’t offer any specific changes.
Activists cheered the Forest Service’s decision to put off the roundup.
“This is great news,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, which joined other groups in threatening to sue. “We knew from the start this was a dirty deal that obviously couldn’t survive the light of day. We’re glad it was postponed and now we’d like to hold Secretary Vilsack to his word about needing a better way to manage horses other than to send them to slaughter.”
The Forest Service was tight-lipped with information.
The Times had requested a budget estimate of the cost of the roundup and a copy of the agency’s agreement with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes to transfer the horses to them for disposal, but neither was provided.
The activists said the tribe planned to ship the horses to an auction in Nevada that is frequented by slaughter buyers, and pointed to a special auction notice that advertised it would be selling horses from the Fort McDermitt reservation.
But the Forest Service, in its brief statement Thursday, seemed to deny that.
“The Forest Service had planned the removal of 400 horses in remote parts of the forest to transfer to the Fort McDermott Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, who owned the horses. The removal was being conducted to prevent further damage to the delicate rangeland ecosystem and to return the animals to their owners,” the agency said in its statement.
On its website, the Forest Service says its preferred solution to overpopulation of wild horses on its lands is to have private citizens adopt them. It also says animals that are not adoptable “are sent to federally funded sanctuaries or long term holding facilities in Oklahoma and Kansas where they live out their natural lives on the prairie.”
The Forest Service said horse populations double every five years without population controls, and can strain the environment. Horses have no natural predators in most areas, so human efforts are needed to limit the population, the service says.
This week’s roundup was to take place on the reservation and on Forest Service land in northern Nevada.
Ms. Roy said part of the problem is that some of the horses were likely to have come from horse populations protected under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
She said she and her group planned to observe the roundup, in which helicopters would be used to herd the horses to capture locations. She said the group wanted to make sure none of those protected horses was taken.
Deniz Bolbol, communications director for the group, said the Forest Service initially promised several observation points near the horse capture areas, but then was told those plans were canceled and the public wouldn’t be allowed to watch.
Ms. Bolbol also said the Forest Service never provided the notice it is required to give to interested parties about the roundup.
“They actively were trying to hide this roundup,” she said, adding that the agency was using the Indian reservation as a work-around to public disclosure laws.
Meanwhile, Mr. Vilsack and his department are trying to negotiate the thorny issue of horse meat slaughter.
Horse meat production has been effectively banned since 2006, when Congress removed money for inspections.
But two years ago, after a government audit found that horses that had been shipped to American plants were being sent to foreign countries, and potentially suffering more abuse along the way, Congress lifted its ban and restored money for food inspections of horse meat slaughterhouses.
After intense public debate, the Agriculture Department this summer granted permits for slaughterhouses in Iowa and New Mexico.
A federal judge has put those plans on hold, but on Thursday demanded a $500,000 bond from horse protection groups as a way of protecting the slaughterhouses should the businesses win the case after what could be lengthy court proceedings, according to The Associated Press.