LAS VEGAS - Ranchers and horse owners in the United States should be allowed to slaughter their animals and sell the meat as food, said dozens of breeders, trainers and lawmakers gathered in Las Vegas this week to revive the nation's shuttered horse processing industry.
The first Summit of the Horse on Tuesday drew advocates from across the West who slammed animal rights groups and implored the federal government to once again embrace horse meat as a legal source of nutrition, saying horse meat is already safely consumed in dozens of countries.
Sue Wallis, a Wyoming legislator and vice president of United Horsemen, said horse processing is the humane and ethical solution to controlling horse populations.
"What's happening is we've taken a valuable asset and turned it into a very expensive liability," she said. "The United States will become like Europe, where only the very wealthy will be able to afford horses."
Congressin 2007 after animal-rights activists objected to the way the animals were treated.
Bureau of Land Management chief Robert Abbey is scheduled to address the conference late Tuesday to discuss problems created by growing populations of feral horses.
Abbey has expressed opposition to horse euthanasia but still faces criticism from animal rights groups for agreeing to face the pro-slaughter advocates in Nevada - a state that is home to nearly half of the nation's wild horses and burros.
Animal rights activists planned to host a protest against the horse summit Tuesday.
Horse processing proponents said the federal government's policy of rounding up excess horses and storing them amounts to public welfare for horses. The Bureau of Land Management spent $36.9 million in 2010 to feed and care for horses rounded up and confined in corrals.
Critics also portray the federal program as a job killing solution that undercuts the West's tradition of ranching and meat processing.
"The Chinese are chomping at the bit to buy our horses," said former U.S. Rep Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas. "The Russians are chomping at the bit to buy our horses. Why can't we sell it to them?"
Feral horses compete with other wildlife for forage. They can quickly overwhelm an area because they have long life spans and are unlikely to be threatened by predators or disease. The Bureau of Land Management estimates wild horses could double their population in four years if left unchecked.
Wallis of United Horsemen said extreme environmentalists have pushed policy that has allowed wild horses to overrun the West and U.S. markets to devalue privately owned horses.
Since 2007, some horses have been trucked to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, an expensive business cost that has rendered the horse industry unprofitable, slaughter advocates argue.
Some say over-breeding, not the slaughter ban, has caused the overpopulation problem.
"Just like the housing industry over saturated itself and collapsed, the horse breeding industry is self-destructing and bringing down horse values, and horse slaughter is their bail out," Simone Netherlands, a natural horsemanship trainer from Arizona and founder of Respect4Horses.
Netherlands said federal horse policy threaten horses and could eventually lead to their extinction.