Renewed interest in a decades-long controversy regarding horse slaughter emerged at the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board meeting at the Oklahoma City Sheraton earlier this month.

Protestors outside the meeting chanted “No, no slaughter houses here!” while hosting a news conference in the same downtown hotel, voicing concerns about the fate of BLM’s wild horses held in Oklahoma, if horse slaughter was made legal in the state.

HB 1999, sponsored by Rep. Skye McNiel, R-Okla., allows for the slaughter of horses for human consumption in Oklahoma. However, it does not allow for the sale of horsemeat for consumption in the state.

Opponents of the legislation fear its passage would put the 49,000 wild horses currently in BLM holding facilities in direct danger of being purchased for slaughter. Nearly 42 percent, or 21,000, of the wild horses held by the BLM are kept in long-term holding facilities in Oklahoma. Pasturelands in Bartlesville, Foraker, and Pawhuska are home to some of the animals in Oklahoma, while another 9,500 reside just across the state’s Kansas border.

 “Horses are our companions and partners,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. “They deserve to be treated better than to experience a horrible death on the floor of a slaughter house.”

A spokesman for BLM said its policy is clear that it does not sell horses to slaughter facilities nor does it sell to what are known as “killer buyers.”

“There are a number of things we have put in place as further safeguards to make sure the animals are going to good homes,” said Paul McGuire, public affairs specialist for BLM in Oklahoma. “Some of the criteria include limitations on the number of horses an individual can buy at any given time and buyers have to indicate in detail where the animals will be kept for at least the first six months they own them.”

Despite the animals’ storied reputation of freedom and the spirit of the original Wild West, wild horses have long been the center of controversy in the United States.

The controversy came to light in Nevada in the early 1950s when a driver, Velma B. Johnston, said she noticed a truckload of wild horses was dripping blood and followed it to a rendering plant, according to several historical accounts, including an interview Johnston did with Sports Illustrated two years before her death in 1977.

“They were injured and bleeding, and the only thing keeping some of them from falling down was that they were packed in so tightly,” Johnston told Sports Illustrated in 1975.

Later nicknamed “Wild Horse Annie,” Johnston began a fervent campaign to stop the use of motorized vehicles in the round-up of wild horses. The public began to take notice when she enlisted school children to write letters to save the wild horses and in a 1959 article the Associated Press stated that “seldom has an issue touched such a responsive chord.”

Following the campaign, a state bill prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles to round-up wild horses on public lands was introduced by Rep. Walter Baring, D-Nev. The bill passed unanimously in the House and the “Wild Horse Annie Act,” as it was called, was signed into public law Sept. 8, 1959.

The legislation didn’t stop the round-up of wild horses, but only pertained to the method of round-up. By the 1970s, BLM estimated fewer than 26,000 wild horses and burros remained in the western United States. Thus, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was enacted with measures to protect, manage, and control wild horse herds.

That bill stated, “Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” The legislation detailed measures to protect and manage wild horse and burro herds, including a declaration that the animals are “an integral part of the natural system of public lands.” It outlined a process for humane capture and removal of excess numbers, and limits the number of adoptions per person per year.

Amendments in 1976 and 1978 broadened the legislation by allowing helicopters and motorized vehicles to humanely round-up wild horses and re-iterated the need for inventory and monitoring systems to regulate public rangeland conditions.

The legislation was further modified in 2004 with the “Burns Amendment,” sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., which removes selling limitations on horses 10 years or older or those that have failed to be adopted at least three times.

HB 1999 was approved in the Oklahoma House of Representatives by an 82-14 vote and now heads to the Senate. If the measure becomes law, it would allow for the legal sale of horsemeat from slaughter facilities for the first time in Oklahoma since 1963.

The continued controversy surrounding wild horses divides horse lovers. With legislation that continues to evolve, it appears to be far from over. £

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