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Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson vowed Saturday to fight a federal ruling that will allow U.S. horse slaughterhouses to operate for the first time since 2007.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo tossed a lawsuit by the Humane Society and animal protection groups seeking to block horse slaughter, contending that federal officials had failed to assess the environmental impacts of slaughterhouses. Her ruling could allow Roswell, N.M.-based Valley Meat, Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa, and Rains Natural Meats of Gallatin, Mo., to slaughter horses and ship meat to countries where it's consumed by humans or used as animal feed.
Currently, most domestic horses destined for slaughter are shipped to Canadian and Mexico processing plants.
The hot-button issue has split animal rights activists, ranchers and Indian tribes for years. Richardson and actor Robert Redford have been the animal rights groups' most visible supporters, saying the slaughter of an iconic animal is cruel and inhumane.
Earlier this year, Richardson and Redford — unavailable for comment Saturday — launched the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife, eventually gathering support from the Navajo Nation, which had previously rounded up thousands of feral horses it said were causing ecological and property damage.
"Our next course of action is to file an appeal, a full rush with Congress to see if we can pass a prohibition, and to concentrate on more state by state efforts to stop this," Richardson told USA TODAY. "The odds are not that good about stopping this, but it's not over."
It's estimated that 75,000 feral and wild horses roam the U.S., most in the West and Southwest.
In 2007, the last year U.S. slaughterhouses processed horsemeat, 30,000 horses were killed for human consumption, another 78,000 were shipped for processing in Mexico and Canada.
Valley Meat Co. President Rick De Los Santos could not be reached Saturday. But New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has said he may try to block the company's horse slaughter efforts because drugs used to treat horses make their meat unfit for human consumption and cannot be processed or sold in the state, regardless of where its ultimately shipped or consumed.
Blair Dunn, who represents Valley Meat and Rains Natural Meats, said he would fight any further attempts to keep the plants closed. He said he had calls into the Department of Justice, which represents the Department of Agriculture, to get inspectors dispatched to the plants.
"Rains Natural Meat in Missouri will be ready to go on Monday," he said.
Follow Strauss on Twitter @gbstrauss
Contributing: The Associated Press