HELENA, MONTANA — Montana's horse slaughter bill passed through the Legislature. House Bill 418 now awaits action by Governor Brian Schweitzer, according to The Associated Press. The bill was designed to alleviate lawsuits that forced the nation’s last slaughterhouses in Illinois and Texas to shut down.

The Montana Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau has authority to inspect horse slaughter facilities, but meat carrying just the Bureau’s approval could not be sold outside the state. The U.S. Department of Agriculture must inspect meat exported to overseas markets. U.S.D.A., however, cannot inspect horse meat due to a spending restriction built into a 2006 federal appropriations bill.

Representative Edward Butcher, the Montana bill's sponsor, argues a slaughterhouse could negotiate with the U.S.D.A. for an export certificate, or pay for its own inspections to sidestep the federal spending bar.

U.S.D.A. allowed the country's remaining slaughter facilities to pay for their own inspections after Congress pulled the agency's funding — but a federal court ruling ultimately stopped that arrangement. The 2007 ruling, by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, found U.S.D.A. violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it instituted the fee-for-service inspection system without first conducting an environmental review.

Both proponents and opponents are taking the possibility of a horse slaughterhouse in Montana seriously. The governor's office and state lawmakers' offices both have been flooded with messages from across the country about the Butcher's bill. As of April 1, 652 of those calling opposed the bill and 746 supported it. Calls and e-mails from Montanans were about 2-to-1 in favor of horse slaughter, AP said.

In Missouri, its Legislature is considering a resolution calling for federal incentives for U.S. slaughtering plants; and North Dakota lawmakers are considering spending $50,000 for a horse slaughter study. Two congressional bills seek a ban on sending any horses across U.S. borders for meat processing.

Supporters claim the slumping economy has led to a crisis for horse owners who cannot afford the costs of euthanasia, spurring increases in abandoned horses. U.S.D.A. stated in 2007, 58,000 horses were slaughtered in the U.S. compared to 102,000 in 2006.

As the result of current U.S. laws, American horses today are sent to facilities in Canada and Mexico. Last year these facilities collectively processed approximately 106,000 horses from the U.S. Since 2007, however, the total number of American horses annually slaughtered has declined by approximately 34,000 because lawsuits over state laws led to U.S. plants' closure.

The Montana bill hopes to stem such lawsuits, as it would require challengers to post a bond worth 20% of the slaughter facility's construction costs. It also prohibits courts from halting construction once a facility has been approved by the state.

The Illinois House recently rejected a move to overturn the state's ban on slaughtering horses for meat, according to the Chicago Tribune.

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