By Jeri Clausing, Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE - Former Gov. Bill Richardson said Friday that he hopes an agreement he is negotiating with the Navajo Nation becomes a model for saving horses from slaughter.
Richardson said he and the tribe are close to finalizing the pact, which would give the Navajos philanthropic support for horse sanctuaries, equine birth control and other programs to help it manage feral horse populations that the tribe has said are drinking wells dry and causing ecological damage to the drought-stricken range.
The Navajo deal and a federal lawsuit seeking to block a southern New Mexico company and two others from resuming domestic horse slaughter are the current focus of the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife, which Richardson founded last year with actor Robert Redford.
Richardson Friday was named The Humane Society of the United States Humane Horseman of the Year for his efforts. The Humane Society has been leading a federal lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture for issuing horse slaughter permits to Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M., and companies in Missouri and Iowa.
Richardson began negotiations with Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly last year after the tribe, which was rounding up horses for shipment to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, came out in support of Valley Meat Co. The tribe has estimated as many as 75,000 feral horses roam the reservation.
Following their talks, Shelly withdrew his support for slaughter and stopped the roundups.
Richardson said he hopes to have an agreement finalized within the next 60 days.
"Our hope is that ... our plan with the Navajo Nation becomes a model for the country," Richardson said in an interview Friday. "This is a problem, what we do with our wild horses and burros. We hope this will be a start."
The award comes as legal and political battles over attempts to resume horse slaughter are intensifying.
A federal judge in Albuquerque last year threw out the Humane Society's lawsuit, but it is on appeal. Still, Valley's planned opening this month remains on hold while a state district judge in Santa Fe considers a lawsuit by Attorney General Gary King, who claims Valley's operations would violate environmental and food safety laws. King argues horses are given drugs not approved for animals that are to be slaughtered for human consumption.
Valley's attorney, Blair Dunn, said because the meat would be shipped overseas, the state lacks jurisdiction.
Dunn has accused King of conspiring with animal protection groups to block a lawful business with a frivolous lawsuit to further his gubernatorial bid. A hearing in that case is scheduled Monday.