Backers said ranchers and those who own horses have been struggling ever since all the slaughterhouses in the country were closed down. They said it is far more difficult now to dispose of old, sick or injured animals.
"This bill is really providing a humane and regulated processing plant," said the sponsor, Republican Rep. Ed Butcher, a horse owner from the central Montana farm community of Winifred. "Demand is there. We want a humane way to address the problem."
The measure was endorsed 67-33 Tuesday in the first of two scheduled House votes. If it passes again Wednesday as expected, it will go to the Senate for more hearings and votes.
Butcher said his bill gives investors assurance that Montana will treat their businesses fairly if they build in the state.
He was backed by agriculture interests on both sides of the aisle. House Majority Leader Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar, said the closure of the country's last slaughterhouse "had a devastating effect on ranchers."
Others said that old and lame horses are being abandoned on public land in some cases.
Cavel International Inc. shut down its DeKalb, Ill., operation after the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007 upheld an Illinois law prohibiting slaughter of horses for human consumption.
Opponents argued that a horse slaughterhouse should not be granted special exemptions from environmental and other laws, and should be treated like any factory.
Rep. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, said animals should be more justly treated. "We need to care about animals and be responsible owners," she said.
In 2007, when state-imposed bans closed the last three U.S. horse slaughterhouses, a record 78,000 horses were exported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics compiled by the Humane Society.
Butcher argued the country needs a slaughterhouse as cases of horse abandonment and cruelty escalate amid economic upheaval that has some owners of the animals unable to care for them, unable to find new homes for horses and looking for ways to dispose of them humanely and affordably.
Selling horses for slaughter was an option when the country had facilities to take them, Butcher said, but now people are left with the cost of euthanasia plus disposal fees that can run into hundreds of dollars.
Butcher said slaughtering domestically makes more sense than sending U.S. horses to Canada or Mexico, and the work can be done swiftly, without pain to the animal.
But Nancy Perry, the Humane Society's vice president for government affairs, has said horses are particularly ill-suited for traditional slaughterhouses. The animals are likely to try to escape the kill box and the procedure for killing them can be disrupted.