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Guest Opinion : Time for lawmakers to use horse sense

As a cattle rancher and 12-year resident within Ironwood Forest National Monument, I see a potential environmental disaster brewing.

The Monument is undergoing a Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement currently in the public comment period until May 30.

The Bureau of Land Management’s “preferred alternative,” Alternative C, allows livestock grazing to be arbitrarily phased out, yet leaves the door open for later introductions of feral burros and horses.

Meanwhile, a bill proceeding through the U.S. Senate, S 311, aims to ban horse processing – specifically the “shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of any horse or other equine to be slaughtered for human consumption.”

In a related development, the U.S. House of Representatives approved HR 249, to eliminate sale authority for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Currently, horses that are old, injured or otherwise undesirable are humanely slaughtered in federally regulated, inspected meat-processing facilities.

The meat product is then exported to foreign markets because, unlike us, many cultures abroad include horse meat in the everyday human diet.

S 311 would prohibit this humane, regulated and healthy export industry and force foreign food prices up.

Citizens of every foreign country already pay a substantially higher percentage of their disposable income for food than we do.

Our food costs average 10 percent of our disposable income. Citizens of many developed countries pay more than twice that percentage, and those in poor countries pay substantially more.

Driving foreign food costs higher just to give ourselves warm, fuzzy feelings is patently unethical.

Up to 90,000 horses a year could be affected. Citizens who own undesirable horses and burros may begin dumping them on our public lands simply because they cannot afford disposal or the health risks associated with giant, rotting carcasses.

S 311, and legislation in the House, HR 503, both fail to address the problems of costs for care and the unintended mistreatment of these animals in nonregulated rescue facilities.

In addition to inhumane consequences, these bills could lead to damage of native ecosystems.

Equines have upper front teeth, which cattle lack. Burros thereby consume inch-thick tree branches, with paloverdes as their favorite dish.

According to the Arizona Partners in Flight, “. . . birds particularly favor paloverdes for nesting. Of 579 nests analyzed by the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas project in Sonoran Desert habitat during 1994-96, 269 (46 percent) were in washes and 203 (35 percent) were in paloverdes. . . We have observed that in areas heavily used by burros, no small branches remain below 2 meters (6.5 feet) on any paloverdes. Bird nesting sites are disappearing in these areas and recruitment of young trees for future nesting sites is nonexistent.”

In addition to disrupting nesting habitat, burros also can venture into higher, rockier areas than cattle.

If allowed into the Ironwood Forest National Monument, burros might compete against the Silverbell bighorn sheep. Currently in the Monument, cattle and bighorns forage predominantly at separate elevations.

If S 311 passes, the BLM may have no alternative to deal with uncontrollable feral equine populations other than to force managed livestock off our federal lands and replace them with unmanaged, ever-multiplying wild equines.

The BLM already has begun approaching Ironwood Monument ranchers to pasture wild equines.

How might all this affect Arizona’s $2 billion cattle industry, which supports roughly four nonfarm jobs for every farm job?

Please write your senators to oppose S 311, and send comments to Mark Lambert, Ironwood Forest National Monument Planning Lead, Bureau of Land Management, 12661 E. Broadway, Tucson, AZ 85748.

About the author

Cindy Coping is a cattle rancher in the Tucson area.

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