LAS VEGAS (AP) - The U.S. Bureau of Land Management chief blasted critics of the federal government's periodic wild horse roundups on Tuesday, calling the practice rare and necessary as he spoke at a horse slaughter summit in Las Vegas.
The roundups, which are aimed at controlling the population of horses on federal rangelands in the West, have been deemed insufficient by advocates on both sides of the debate. Animal rights groups contending they are an inhumane solution and pro-slaughter proponents declaring them a waste of public money.
"These horses are part of our heritage," BLM chief Robert Abbey said to a room of more than 100 breeders, trainers and lawmakers. "Make no mistake, they deserve to be treated the best way that we can treat them."
The first Summit of the Horse on Tuesday drew advocates from across the West who slammed animal rights groups and implored the federal government to once again embrace horse meat as a legal source of nutrition, saying it is already safely consumed in dozens of countries.
Congress ended the killing of horses for human consumption in 2007 after animal-rights activists objected to the way the animals were treated.
Abbey has expressed firm opposition to horse euthanasia but still faced criticism from animal rights groups for agreeing to face the pro-slaughter advocates in Nevada - a state that is home to nearly half of the nation's wild horses and burros. Animal rights activists planned to host a protest against the horse summit Tuesday.
"There are a lot of people who believe we have ulterior motives in the actions we are taking," Abbey said in an impassioned defense of the roundups. "We are not interested in eliminating wild horses from these lands."
Abbey said the roundups, which often involve helicopters chasing wild horses on federal land, are the "safest and most efficient way" to gather large amounts of horses.
"Some scrutiny of this program has crossed the line of fair criticism," Abbey said.
Abbey said the bureau is hoping its newest goal of treating roughly 1,000 mares with infertility vaccines will reduce the frequency of the roundups in the future. He also said the government will continue to promote its horse adoption program.
The summit in Las Vegas was organized by U.S. ranchers and horse owners who believe the nation's horse slaughter industry should be revived and the animals should be slaughtered and sold as food.
Sue Wallis, a Wyoming legislator and vice president of United Horsemen, said horse processing is the humane and ethical solution to controlling horse populations.
"What's happening is we've taken a valuable asset and turned it into a very expensive liability," she said. "The United States will become like Europe, where only the very wealthy will be able to afford horses."
Wallis said the federal government's policy of rounding up excess horses and storing them amounts to public welfare for horses. The Bureau of Land Management spent $36.9 million in 2010 to feed and care for horses rounded up and confined in corrals.
Critics also portray the federal program as a job killing solution that undercuts the West's tradition of ranching and meat processing.
"The Chinese are chomping at the bit to buy our horses," said former U.S. Rep Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas. "The Russians are chomping at the bit to buy our horses. Why can't we sell it to them?"
Animal rights groups, meanwhile, call the roundups cruel and accuse the Bureau of Land Management of trying to exterminate wild horses.
"The BLM looks at the issue as, 'more wild horses, more problems,"' said Ginger Kathrens, director of the horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation based in Colorado. "They destroy what is so beautiful, to sit on a hill and watch the behavior of these wild animals."
Since 2007, some horses have been trucked to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, an expensive business cost that has rendered the horse industry unprofitable, slaughter advocates argue.
Abbey said feral horses compete with other wildlife for forage and water and can quickly overwhelm an area because they have long life spans and are unlikely to be threatened by predators or disease. The Bureau of Land Management estimates wild horses could double their population in four years if left unchecked.