Should tribal sovereignty end where animal cruelty and neglect begin?

That was the case last year when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Flagstaff arrested a Havasupai tribal member on charges of abusing one of his pack animals. Leland Joe pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty and is serving three years of supervised probation during which he must give up four of his horses. He also must pay $1,200 in restitution.

The horse is part of a herd of nearly 400 in Havasu Canyon kept by tribal members to ferry supplies and tourists from the rim to the campground and waterfalls below, then back out again. Because thousands of tourists visit the canyon each year, the horses get closer scrutiny than most, and many visitors are not shy about complaining to authorities when they see protruding ribs, open sores and untreated wounds because of underfeeding or carrying too much weight.

Fast forward to last month, and it was the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs that again blew the whistle on horse mistreatment by a tribal member. The horse’s owner, Cecil Watahomigie, was arrested and faced a federal charge in Flagstaff of animal cruelty.

But that’s where the similarities end. In the months since the Leland Joe case, the Havasupai have hired a tribal prosecutor and a tribal court judge. And so before Watahomigie’s case could come before a federal judge, he pled guilty to animal cruelty in tribal court and received a 30-day jail sentence that is suspended if he completes his 6-month probation. The abused horse will be returned to him if he demonstrates during random inspections that he can properly care for his other horses.

Because tourism is the main industry of the tribe, it has a vested interest in putting its best face forward to visitors, and that starts at the trailhead on the rim. The adverse publicity from the Leland Joe case prompted them to start an animal control office and a licensing and permitting program under which horses that don’t meet minimum body condition requirements aren’t allowed to pack. They also charge outfitters a license fee of $7,500 a year, with the revenues designated in part for animal welfare oversight.

Further, the tribe welcomed for the first time a relief trip by the Humane Society of the United States to Supai, including a veterinarian, food and medicines. The visitors conducted classes on proper equine care along with animal cruelty and mistreatment.

On paper, then, the tribe had the resources and training in place to monitor and enforce better horse treatment. But in the case of Watahomigie, it still took an outside agent of the BIA to make the initial legal move after continued complaints by tourists. And when the tribal prosecutor and court did act, the sentence, say animal rights activists, didn’t reflect the defendant’s history of animal mistreatment dating back to at least 2014, according to evidence submitted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

There may be some justice that was left undone in this case. A repeat offender like Watohomigie isn’t likely to be scared straight by a suspended jail sentence and the confiscation of just one horse.

But as tribal officials have pointed out, it’s not cheap to feed and care for a working pack horse in such a remote location, especially in the summer heat. Estimates start at $4,800 a year, and that’s just in Phoenix. Horse owners compete to place their animals with outfitters, and that can drive down prices that are felt by horses at feeding time and in fewer vet visits, or by owners agreeing to more weight to curry favor with outfitters.

At this point, it might be time for tribal intervention in the private horse market. Officials could declare the outfitting industry a public conveyance, essentially making it a utility under a tribal tourism corporation subject to more regulation and price setting. Outfitters would deal with a single tribal pack horse registry, not directly with horse owners. The corporation would place only those horses that were fit for duty, and owners would either be guaranteed compensation sufficient to care properly for their animals or they could turn them over to the corporation and sign on as employees. Outfitters would be barred from bringing in their own animals, thus incentivizing them to work with tribal animals in a way that kept a healthy herd available to them.

Such an arrangement is common in localities that deal with other monopoly industries, such as electric power and mass transit. In the case of Havasupai horses, its purpose would be to assure the sustainability of what literally powers the tribe’s only industry.

The current free market arrangement promotes a race to the bottom by horse owners who have no other income options and hungry horses to feed. Setting a sustainable price floor and weight limits for pack horse rentals is essential, and that means the tribe must take more ownership of the tourism industry, if not the horses themselves.

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