HELENA – Horse slaughterhouses might find a new home in Montana if a bill to spur their construction passes one more hurdle in the state Senate.
House Bill 418, which senators endorsed Thursday on a vote of 27-23, aims to rein in possible state court actions that might discourage construction of a horse slaughterhouse in Montana.
It follows the closure of the country’s last slaughter facility in DeKalb, Ill., after the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Illinois law prohibiting slaughter of horses for human consumption.
After one more successful vote in the Senate, the measure introduced by Rep. Ed Butcher, a Republican horse owner from a central Montana farming community, would move to the governor’s desk.
In Thursday’s Senate debate, the bill’s passage was hitched to Montana’s roots as a Western ranching state, with supporters urging fellow lawmakers to view horses as livestock that can outlive their commercial purpose.
“This is horse country, and it’s good horse country, and there’s a heritage there that we don’t want to lose,” said Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek.
Without a nearby slaughter facility, supporters said, the abandonment of old, sick or injured horses will likely increase as the country slumps further into the hardships of an economic recession.
“When a horse is too old to breed, too old to ride, or too expensive to feed, a horse is disposed of,” said Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, who carried the bill in the Senate.
As it stands now, old horses can be set out to pasture in a handful of equine shelters in the state, or disposed of through euthanasia — options that some Montanan horse owners cannot afford, according to those who wish to see a slaughter facility in the state.
The bill’s opponents, however, bridle at the suggestion that slaughterhouses somehow align with the customs of a state where self-reliance is a core value.
“Yes, we’re in tough economic times, but I was raised like most of you to take personal responsibility for the decisions you make, including the decision to own a horse,” said Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Missoula.
The legal protections the bill would give slaughter companies have also prompted criticism.
“I don’t think there’s a business that we give a blank check to that says no injunction,” said Sen. Rick Laible, R-Darby, one of two Republicans voting against the bill.
The bill would require those challenging a slaughter facility permit to post a bond worth 20 percent of its construction costs. It would also prohibit courts from halting construction of a facility once it’s been approved by the state.
Other states where horses play a vital role in the economy have also recently considered studying the impact of opening slaughter facilities, and legislation is afoot elsewhere that asks Congress to support states’ rights to regulate horse transport and slaughter.
Most of it, though, is directed at a bill pending in Congress that would prohibit transporting across U.S. borders horses that would be killed for meat, effectively removing Canada and Mexico as slaughter destinations.
If a slaughterhouse were to open in Montana, old horses from other states could be brought here for processing, with the meat going to overseas market and other byproducts used in things like glue — a prospect that some argue would sully Montana’s reputation, but not one that frightens those in favor of the measure.
“I don’t care about what Chicago or anybody else says. I care about what Montanans say,” Zinke said in his closing remarks.
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