Shelly asks feds for help with feral horses

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, Sept. 19, 2013

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President Ben Shelly has apparently changed his heart and mind about the way at least 1,000 feral horses on the reservation have been rounded up recently by the Navajo Department of Agriculture and Navajo Department of Resource Enforcement.

Now, the president advocates for more humane treatment of the estimated 75,000 feral horses that are running freely on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, according to a press release from the Navajo Nation Washington Office.

The news was welcomed by the grassroots people known collectively as the Nohooka Dine, or Holy Earth Surface People, and Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie, who have decried the roundup methods as overly harsh and not in line with Diné philosophy.

Last week on a lobbying trip to Washington D.C., Shelly informed the Bureau of Land Management's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory of the growing feral horse problem on the Navajo Nation.

"The potential damage and cost of addressing this problem, coupled with the suffering these animals experience has brought the Navajo Nation to ask you to find a solution to feral horses," Shelly said.

He added that the Navajo Nation is spending more than $200,000 per year to address the damage these horses cause.

The tribal agriculture department has stated a single feral horse consumes 18 pounds of forage per day, or 6,570 pounds per year. Removing 159 horses from the Navajo Nation would save 290,175 gallons of water per year and 1.1 million pounds of forage, according to the Navajo Department of Agriculture.

What's more, Shelly also said these horses have contributed to death and property destruction due to highway accidents, as well as competition for natural resources used by domestic livestock and people. The horses themselves are suffering starvation, dehydration and predation.

Citing the Navajo Department of Agriculture, Shelly has previously stated that the land of the reservation is suitable for about 30,000 horses, not the 75,000 currently eating up the forage of the range.

"These horses are not the iconic wild horses that many think symbolize the West," Shelly added. "These feral horses are once-domesticated animals that have been set free by owners who can no longer afford their upkeep."

Jared King, spokesman for the Navajo Nation Washington Office, said Shelly met with the advisory board on how the board makes recommendations to the BLM as it carries out its responsibilities under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandates the protection, management and control of these animals in a manner that ensures healthy herds at levels consistent with the land's capacity to support them.

Shelly also met with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the U.S. Humane Society, and the American Wild Horse Sanctuary, and expressed how the federal government needs to live up to its trust responsibilities to help the tribe keep the horses from overgrazing its lands.

"Horses are sacred and special to the Navajo people and have had a central place in Navajo culture going back to our creation stores," Shelly said to the animal rights organizations.

"I hate to see horses in pain," he said, adding that something needs to be done about the needless suffering. "The federal government must live up to its responsibilities."

In a statement issued to the Navajo Times on Monday, medicine healer and horse lover Leland Grass, on behalf of the Nohooka Dine, applauded Shelly's change of heart and mind.

"We urge the Navajo Nation to formally adopt a moratorium on horse slaughtering and to only legally contract with horse buyers that agree not to sell horses for slaughter or not to slaughter the horses themselves," Grass said.

Grass said the Nohooka Dine, consisting of elderly and medicine people near Black Mesa, Ariz., are also encouraged by the thoughts Shelly's spokesman Erny Zah stated on the radio program Native American Calling on Sept. 12.

Both Grass and Zah were on air talking with Native American Calling about the feral horse issue on the Navajo Nation.

Zah, according to Grass, was quoted as saying, "Slaughtering is not a solution ... As the Navajo Nation we are against slaughtering of these horses."

Zah said Wednesday the Navajo Nation never supported horse slaughtering as a solution.

"There is a misconception that we are advocating for horse slaughtering as a solution," Zah said. "It's complex and emotional and to make a real impact it's going to take a segment of smaller solutions to be effective."

Encouraged by Shelly and Zah's statements, Grass said the Nohooka Dine is sending a resolution to all legislators in Washington D.C. to show their support for the significance of the horse in Navajo culture and urge the lawmakers to pass the Safeguard American Food Exports Act.

The Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which would prohibit the sale or export of equines and equine parts across the U.S. or abroad for human consumption, is currently being considered by Congress.

"While it is important for protecting the horse within the Navajo Nation, a national bill is critical to ensure there is no incentive for horses to be taken from our lands or elsewhere in the United States for slaughter," Grass said.

Yazzie, meanwhile, said advocacy for humane treatment of the reservation's horses is "very much in order across the reservation," as evidenced by the Nohooka Dine.

"In hearing about the intrinsic significance that horses have in the Diné traditional stories and songs, it certainly would be appropriate to believe that horses have rights to exist under Diné natural law," Yazzie said.

As the natural laws of the universe demand, the chapter president added, the very existence of horses necessitates humane treatment.

Shiprock Chapter recently approved a localized roundup of their own as a more humane alternative to the agriculture departments. Disagreeing with how the tribal agency is reportedly using all-terrain vehicles and chasing the feral horses to exhaustion, Yazzie's chapter on Sept. 9 rescinded its resolution to take part in the reservation-wide roundup of feral horses.

According to the chapter's plan of action for its roundup, the use of motorized vehicles and crafts, or ATVs, will be discouraged and kept to a minimum, unless it is deemed necessary by the chapter's Feral Horse Roundup Subcommittee and the supervising grazing committee official.

"At no time during a roundup event will young foals and ponies be run so as to endanger their health and lives," the provision in the plan of operation states.

The chapter plans to use the entrapment method to capture the estimated 300-400 feral horses that grazing officer Robert Hays says reside within the chapter boundaries, and adopt those horses out to adoption programs, training and therapy programs, ranchers, farmers and horse trainers as well as projects such as the "Extreme Mustang Makeover."

The plan of operation also calls for separating horses according to brands and returning them to their owners, the "aged and sickly" being turned over to the Navajo Veterinary and Livestock Program, and mares being sterilized and studs castrated.

"The chapter, Feral Horse Roundup Subcommittee and the Grazing Committee official will maintain a continued observance of the feral horse population and will conduct horse roundups from time to time to control the population," Yazzie said.

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at