Ed Butcher, a former Montana legislator from Winifred, says he was recently given a two-year-old filly by a rancher who could no longer take care of her. But Butcher's not sure he can tend the horse either.
"I'm probably going to have to knock a couple horses in the head that would have been taken care of," he says, "because we're getting too many horses, and you can't sell them. If they're not useful, you got to get rid of them. That's the dilemma that's facing ranchers all over."
A solution is on the way. On Nov. 18, President Obama signed an appropriations bill that includes a measure, championed by Sen. Max Baucus, to end a ban on domestic horse slaughter.
"In Montana, we've seen some sad cases of horse abandonment and neglect as owners struggle in this tough economy," Baucus said in a statement. "Now we can fight to revive the jobs shipped to Canada and Mexico as a result of this ban along with making sure injured and sick horses are not abandoned or subject to inhumane treatment."
The Congressional Budget Office reported earlier this year that since 2006—when Congress began prohibiting the use of federal funds to inspect horses destined for food, which effectively banned horse slaughter—U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148 and 660 percent to Canada and Mexico, respectively.
As a Republican representative, Butcher promoted the construction of a horse slaughter facility in Montana despite the federal ban, and he's still at it. He says he has investors lined up who want to send Montana horsemeat to Asian markets. But before building a local slaughter facility, which Butcher believes would cost at least $4 million, he says Montana horses will be sent to existing facilities in neighboring states "just to get the market going."
All of this galls animal rights groups, including the Humane Society, which has made ending "barbaric" horse slaughter for human consumption one of its top priorities.
But Butcher argues that a regulated slaughter facility is more humane than shooting horses in the head and leaving them to coyotes, which he says many ranchers find themselves doing. "You got so many ignorant people out there who think they're saving a horse when all they're doing is creating a lot of misery for the poor damned horse."