Hermiston resident Dave Duquette said this week that the sale of land for a proposed slaughter plant and horse rescue center has been finalized.

The land is a 252-acre parcel near the intersection of Interstate 84 and Westland Road, purchased by a California company that in turn will donate a portion of it to the United Horsemen’s horse rescue and rejuvenation program.

Duquette said at least three Northwest American Indian tribes have expressed an interest in the plant, along with a number of private investors. Duquette said the tribes involved are not yet ready to be publicly identified, but he said one of them is “ready to go today if we get the go-ahead.”

Duquette has proposed a 20,000-square-foot facility that would process as many as 25,000 horses per year when operating a full capacity. The plant would employ “somewhere between 50 and 100” people, and would also include a complete rescue and rejuvenation program for unwanted animals.

The last horse slaughter plants in the United States were closed in 2007 when Congress banned horse meat inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That ban was reversed in November 2011 with the passage of the 2012 Federal Agricultural Appropriations Bill.

Duquette is a longtime professional horse trainer who has lived in Hermiston for 12 years. He said the closure of horse slaughter plants has had the unintended consequence of dramatically increasing the number of unwanted horses across the nation, particularly the herds of “feral” horses that roam the American West.

A recent story in the Portland Oregonian said as many as 15,000 wild horses roam the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington. Duquette said the Navajo Reservation in the American Southwest may harbor as many as 70,000 feral horses.

According to Jim Stephensons, a spokesman for the Yakama Nation, the horses are rapidly destroying the rangeland on the reservations.

“We have 10 times the number of horses that the range can carry,” Stephenson told the Oregonian. “This is the worst range habitat conditions I have ever seen.”

Duquette said that when slaughter plants were in operation, “every horse had a place.” Now, he said, there are more malnourished and mistreated horses than before because when owners can’t afford to take care of them, they simply abandon them.

“Almost anybody who has ever been involved in the horse industry, who has ever been involved in making a living in or around horses, will agree with the need for slaughtering plants,” Duquette said.

Much of the meat processed from the plant would be sold overseas. Some would also be sold for pet food and food for zoo animals.

And, Duquette said, there is a growing market for horse meat in the United States.

“There are a wide variety of ethnic groups that horse meat is a big part of their culture,” he said. “There is a growing market here.

Still, there’s a long list of hurdles for Duquette to overcome before the plant becomes a reality.

First, the land would have to be changed from “exclusive farm use” zoning to industrial by Umatilla County. Next would be the pursuit of a variety of permits from the state, including the Department of Environmental Quality.

Then would come the public relations battle he knows his group will face from animal rights group.

“Locally, I don’t think there will be a lot of opposition,” Duquette said. “I think the people here are pretty knowledgeable about horses and the issues.”

But statewide, opponents such as the Humane Society of the United States are mounting a campaign against the facility. Duquette recently debated the issue on Oregon Public Radio with Oregon HSUS director Scott Beckstead.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Duquette said. “The ponds for the wastewater will be covered. There will be no smell from the water. The hides will be sold and be stored in a cooler. And it will be done as humanely as possible.

“When people get the facts without the emotion, I think they understand what we’re trying to do.”

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