RENO, Nev. (AP) — State agriculture officials have discussed ways to muster support for the slaughter of stray horses in Nevada, and the discussions stirred protests among advocates for the free-roaming animals.
Wild horse supporters plan a rally at the state Capitol on Friday to urge Gov. Brian Sandoval to call off next week's scheduled auction of 41 wild mustangs they fear will end up at a slaughterhouse.
"The people who frequent these auctions are kill buyers," said Carrol Abel, director of the Hidden Valley Wild Horse Protection Fund. "There is no reason these horses need to go out and be exposed to the slaughterhouse line."
Newly disclosed state records show members of the state Board of Agriculture have discussed ways to build public support for slaughtering stray horses that roam the foothills southeast of Reno.
The board discussions more than a year ago were prompted by concerns about the safety of motorists on state highways where the animals increasingly are struck and killed.
Nevada is home to about half of all free-roaming horses in the West.
The mustangs in the Virginia Range are considered state property and do not enjoy the same protections as those on adjoining federal lands under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro and Preservation Act.
Minutes of a meeting of the state agriculture board in late 2011 make it clear that Agriculture Director Jim Barbee and board members are sensitive to the political and emotional ramifications of selling the animals for slaughter.
In fact, one member who also serves on a federal advisory panel on wild horses suggested in December 2011 they might avoid some regulatory roadblocks by trying to place any new slaughterhouse on U.S. tribal lands, according to the minutes of the meeting on Dec. 6, 2011.
"Think looking at putting facilities on Indian reservations, which takes Legislature and everybody out of the equation," said Dr. Boyd Spratling, an Elko County veterinarian and co-chairman of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management advisory board, according to the minutes.
Charlie Frey, another board member, asked Barbee whether he discussed with Sandoval the possible slaughter of horses and whether he thought the public perception of slaughter had changed.
"I think it is something for the general public to consider in view that overseas some of that meat is (a) real good delicacy," Frey said, according to the minutes.
Wild horse advocates who requested the minutes from the Agriculture Department and provided a copy to The Associated Press plan to deliver more than 1,500 letters to Sandoval on Friday urging him to stop removing the horses from the range. They specifically want him to cancel the scheduled sale of 41 Virginia Range horses at an auction in Fallon on Wednesday.
Sandoval's press secretary Mary Sarah Kinner did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did Spratling or Frey.
More than three dozen horses have been hit since summer on three rural highways in Lyon and Storey counties around Silver Springs and Virginia City.
"We are damn lucky nobody has gotten killed," board member Ramona Morrison said on Thursday.
Barbee said to his knowledge, no Nevada horses sold in previous auctions have gone to slaughter, but he acknowledged there are no rules or regulation prohibiting that from happening with regard to state strays or feral horses.
"Most of them are bought by advocate groups," Barbee said. "These are not wild horses under federal jurisdiction. These are feral or stray horses. You've got to understand the only reason we are picking up horses is the public safety issue."
Until this summer, the state made the horses available to advocacy groups for purchase before proceeding to public auction. But Barbee said that policy was suspended in August after one group re-released the animals to the range in violation of the sales agreement.
Barbee downplayed the possibility of a slaughter facility being built in Nevada and said he was not aware of anyone considering such action.
He said the matter came up because Congress had removed from an annual appropriation bill a mechanism that effectively prohibited any horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. by withholding money required to fund USDA inspections required for such a facility to operate legally.
"Horse slaughter has never been technically illegal in the U.S.," Barbee said.
A New Mexico meat company has applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a permit to resume domestic horse slaughter for food for the first time in five years.