Updated at 6:54 p.m. ET
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. A federal judge on Friday cleared the way for horse slaughterhouses to resume operating in the U.S. as early as next week.
U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo in Albuquerque threw out a lawsuit by The Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection groups that alleged the Department of Agriculture failed to conduct proper environmental studies when it issued permits to Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, N.M., and an Iowa company to slaughter horses for human consumption.
The decision ends, for now, a two-year battle by Valley Meat to open its slaughterhouse.
Plant owner Rick De Los Santos and his attorney, Blair Dunn, admitted they were surprised when the ruling came down, hours after a temporary restraining order that barred the companies from opening in August had expired.
"If I were a betting man, I probably would have lost a lot of money on this," Dunn said. "I thought the court was headed in a different direction on this since she had issued the TRO. ... I am very, very happy to be wrong."
The Humane Society vowed to appeal and said it would work with states to block the plants from opening.
New Mexico Attorney General Gary King and Gov. Susana Martinez both have opposed horse slaughter.
King said Friday he was disappointed in the ruling.
But De Los Santos was making plans to get to work, two years after converting his struggling cattle slaughterhouse to take advantage of a shift in Congress that lifted a ban on funding for inspections at horse slaughterhouses.
A vote to end that funding in 2006 had effectively banned horse slaughter until the money was restored 2011.
The USDA, however, did not approve the first permits for horse slaughter plants until this summer.
Among the items on De Los Santos' checklist now: alerting authorities and hiring security.
During his two-year fight, he and his wife have received numerous death threats. And last summer, there was a suspicious fire at the plant.
"We will have some angry people I bet," he said. "But we are doing what we are supposed to and that's it."
The debate over a return to domestic horse slaughter has been an emotional one that centers on whether horses are livestock or companion animals and what is the most humane way to deal with the country's horse overpopulation, particularly in the drought-stricken West.
Supporters say it is better to slaughter unwanted horses in regulated domestic plants than to ship them to sometimes inhumane plants in Mexico.
The issue has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes.
The companies want to ship horse meat to countries where it is consumed by humans or used as animal feed.
De Los Santos estimated it would be seven to 10 days before he was up and running.
But Dunn said Rains Natural Meats, in Gallatin, Mo., was poised to open as early as Monday.
A third company, Responsible Transportation, which was started in Sigourney, Iowa, by three recent college graduates, abandoned its plan to process horses and converted to cattle after the restraining order was issued in August.
Responsible Transportation's attorney, Pat Rogers, in an email Friday called the ruling a "victory for jobs, rules and three young Iowa guys with their life savings at risk."
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, called for Congress to impose an outright ban on horse slaughter.
"With today's court ruling and the very real prospect of plants resuming barbaric killing of horses for their meat in the states, we expect the American public to recognize the urgency of the situation and to demand that Congress take action," Pacelle said.
"Court fights and state legislative battles have been important, but this is an issue of national importance and scale, and Congress should have an up-or-down vote on the subject."