A Timely Devil's Garden Wild Horse Update

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Mary Koncel, AWHC

(June 11, 2019) Last November, the United States Forest Service (USFS) completed its roundup and removal of 932 horses from the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory (Territory).  More than six months later, controversy and concerns persist. What will be the fate of the captured horses in holding? And, how will the Modoc National Forest manage the future of the wild horse herd still residing there?

ADOPTION AND SALE OF THE HORSES

How many have been sold. Where they’re held. Who remains in danger.

After last year’s roundup and removal, 261 older horses were shipped to the USFS’s Double Devil Corrals, and 653 younger horses were transported to the BLM Litchfield Corrals.

USFS Corral

The Modoc National Forest held its third wild horse adoption event at the Double Devil Wild Horse Corral near Alturas, CA in early April.

According to an email from Ken Sandusky, Public Affairs Officer for the Modoc National Forest, although no horses were “technically” adopted during the event, 13 horses who were previously adopted or sold were loaded for transport.  

To date, there are still 6 mares and 20 geldings at the corral, ranging in age from 6 to 16 years old as well as 4 foals born at the facility.  

Now that they’ve been through three adoption events, all adult horses remaining at the USFS corral are “three-strike horses” and eligible for sale “with limitations” for $25 each. The USFS’s plan to then sell these horses “without limitation” at $1 each after May 13th, which would leave them vulnerable to being purchased by kill buyers and entering the slaughter pipeline, has been put on hold as a result of AWHC and the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s (ALDF) lawsuit. (See Litigation section.)

Of the 261 horses transferred to the Double Devil Corrals after the roundup, most have been sold “with limitations.”

Thanks to the efforts of volunteer Bonnie Kohleriter with the Devil's Garden Wild Horse Emergency Rescue -- SAVE the DG 300 from Slaughter, about 60 of the older horses, including several pregnant mares, have found safe placement in non-profit sanctuaries or rescues across the county.

To schedule an appointment to view or pick up horses from the Double Devil Corral, contact Modoc Forest Service staff at 530-233-8738.

BLM Litchfield Corrals

As of June 1st, according to a BLM staff member, 480 Devil’s Garden horses are still available for adoption at the BLM corrals in Litchfield, CA.  They include almost 150 yearling fillies and geldings and 330 or so adult horses ranging in age from 2 years old to 14 years old with the majority being mares. About 20 horses have been taken by trainers in the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Training Incentive Program, and several yearlings and adult horses have been sent to BLM satellite adoption events and other facilities for adoption.  

Even though these horses were rounded up and removed from a USFS wild horse territory, because they’re under a care agreement with the BLM, its adoption and sales policies apply to them – meaning that they cannot be available for “sales without limitation” if they become “three-strike horses.”

The USFS has no funds available for long-term holding of Devil’s Garden horses removed from the range. That means that any Devil's Garden horses currently at BLM’s Litchfield corrals who become sale authority after three unsuccessful adoption tries could be shipped back to the Double Devil Corrals on the Modoc and sold “without limitation” on slaughter…  if our litigation is not successful in stopping that lethal plan (See Litigation section.)

But, according to Gwen Sanchez, Acting Forest Supervisor of the Modoc National Forest, the USFS has no current plans to move the horses to the Double Devil Corrals.  

For information on purchasing or adopting the remaining Devil’s Garden horses at the BLM Litchfield corrals, call 530-254-6575 or 800-545-4256. Their adoption fee is $125.

LITIGATION

What happening in court and why.

In response to the USFS’s sudden announcement last Fall of its plans to sell our federally-protected wild horses “without limitation” on slaughter, AWHC and the ALDF filed a legal challenge. (Several other organizations filed litigation as well.)

On May 9th, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco heard our motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the USFS from this unprecedented action that could result in hundreds of federally protected wild horses being sold for slaughter. Worse, such sales would take place in California, where the slaughter of horses for human consumption has been a felony for two decades.

Attorneys representing the USFS claimed that the agency will not sell horses for slaughter for human consumption, but it will sell them for slaughter for other purposes such as to “feed to zoo animals” and for use as "bucking stock" in rodeos – a terrible practice which will presumptively lead to their slaughter. 

While Judge James Donato continued the stipulated prohibition preventing the USFS from selling federally-protected wild horses without limitation on slaughter, he ordered the agency to attempt to work out a deal with AWHC, ALDF, and the other organizations to resolve the litigation.

The USFS’s decision authorizing the sale of federally-protected wild horses for slaughter, an action that is inconsistent with the agency’s own Forest Management Plan, and has provoked widespread opposition from the public and California political leaders, including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Assemblymember Todd Gloria and 22 of his legislative colleagues.

In response to the ongoing controversy, Assemblymember Gloria introduced legislation Assembly Bill 128 to strengthen and improve enforcement of Section 598 of the California penal code, which makes it a felony to sell, import, export or possess a horse for the purpose of slaughter for human consumption. The bill passed the full State Assembly and now is moving to the State Senate.

AWHC also sworked with Representatives Grijavala (AZ) and Titus (NV) to submit language in the House Appropriations bill that would ban the USFS from selling horses without limitations on slaughter which was included in the final bill.  We’re now focusing our efforts on getting the Senate to include the same language in their Appropriations bill in order to close the current loophole through which the USFS can sell these animals without limitation on slaughter.  

FUTURE ROUNDUP AND REMOVAL

Who’s determining the protocol? Why doesn’t it add up?

The USFS is planning another roundup and removal of the Devil’s Garden horse from the Territory, most likely this Fall. According to a recent email from Ms. Sanchez, the exact number of horses targeted for this roundup has yet to be determined because data from March’s aerial census of horses on and off the Territory has not been released.  However, she added that the numbers still show that they are “significantly over AML for this territory.”

That said, another massive removal of up to 1,000 horses would not be a surprise.  Late last year, Amanda McAdams, Modoc National Forest Supervisor, stated that “the size of the gather would also likely be directly related to that census” and but that she could not “imagine a gather larger than what was planned this year.”

Whether the horses will be warehoused at the USFS’s Double Devil Corral or a BLM facility has not yet been decided. The USFS will be funding this next roundup and removal, but it has not yet signed an agreement with a contractor.

On the Territory, the USFS has imposed a population limit (misleadingly called the “Appropriate” Management Level, or AML) of just 206-402 horses on 300,000 acres of public land. The shockingly low number was largely determined by former BLM employees who were funded by the Modoc County Farm Bureau’s Retired Workers Program to write and analyze the 2013 Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Management Plan.   

RETURN OF LIVESTOCK

Allowing cattle to graze where horses were “starving”?

While the USFS and the Modoc County Farm Bureau have repeatedly justified the massive roundup and removal as necessary to “save” the Devil’s Garden wild horses from “starvation,”  the real reason is to allow private ranchers to continue grazing their livestock on the public lands in the Territory.

Now, less than one year after the removal of almost 950 wild horses, the USFS will be returning 300 cow/calf pairs to the Pine Springs allotment on the Territory.  

AWHC first heard about this plan in a March article, ironically titled “Successful Wild Horse Gather Sets Positive Tone for the Future.”  In it, Laura Snell – the University of California Cooperative Extension Director and Agent for Modoc County, vocal horse slaughter supporter, and self-appointed spokesperson for the Modoc National Forest – stated, "Things are much better than they were a year ago" about the general “climate” in Modoc County.  The article, which features Ms. Snell, goes on to report:

With two permits being deemed complete non-use for cattle grazing in the Modoc National Forest due to wild horse populations, ranchers in the area have been hit hard by the lack of initiative in previous years. However, Snell was happy to report that conversations are being had between the Forest Service and local permit holders to allow cattle back onto those permits this year. With just over 900 head of horses being removed from the permits, the opportunity for cattle to once again utilize the range is becoming the light at the end of tunnel for many in Modoc County, California.

When AWHC followed up with the Modoc Forest Service to verify this plan, Ms. Sanchez confirmed that conversations with permit holders are “ongoing,” but added that any decision to return cattle to the public rangeland from which nearly 1,000 horses were rounded up will “be based on the survey data for available forage and that data has not been collected yet.” 

Although the USFS funded the survey, Ms. Sanchez said that it requested assistance from employees in the Retired Workers Program, “which will supplement our data collection and be under Forest Service guidance.”

Here’s the problem with that – given that Retired Workers Program is funded the Modoc County Farm Bureau, AWHC has serious concerns about its employees “assisting” with these surveys in any way.  Because the Farm Bureau’s agenda is to manage the Territory for private livestock, we question the subjectivity of these workers who are involved with collecting such important data.

NEPA ANALYSIS OF THE MIDDLE SECTION OF THE TERRITORY

In the 2013 plan for Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory, former BLM staff (employed by the Retired Workers Program and other local special interest groups) excluded 23,000 acres in the middle section of the Territory for use by the Devil’s Garden horses.

AWHC successfully challenged that decision in the courtroom, alleging the change violated horse protection, forest management, and environmental laws.

Now, to determine the future use of those 23,000 acres, the USFS is starting work on an analysis of the middle section that is required under the National Environmental Protection Act.

In its quarterly report to the Modoc County Board of Supervisors this spring, the Modoc Forest Service stated that “forest personnel and partners are preparing for the NEPA documentation.”  However, according to Ms. Sanchez, she doesn’t have “partners working on this NEPA. All the specialists assigned are Forest Service Employees.”

AWHC certainly understands that plans may have changed. However, because  “partners” of the Modoc National Forest have traditionally been the Modoc County Farm Bureau and other local cattle, our radar is up, and we’ll be keeping track of who’s involved with the NEPA analysis and its results.

GOING FORWARD

We continue to offer proven solutions. We continue to need your voice.

While AWHC and ALDF’s lawsuit and Assembly Bill 128 will hopefully prevent Devil’s Garden horses and other wild horses in California from entering the slaughter pipeline, the best solution is a humane and sustainable management plan.

As we’ve repeatedly stated, in 2013, the National Academy of Sciences warned that roundups and removals actually facilitate high population growth rates on the range and are “expensive and unproductive for BLM and the public it serves.”

AWHC has implemented humane fertility control on wild horses on the Virginia Range in Nevada and brokered additional partnerships with other state and national agencies for the humane management of their wild herds.

Last year, we offered our full resources to the USFS to implement a PZP project and other humane options on the Territory.  That offer was tabled by the USFS which focused instead on cruel and costly removal of wild horses from the range. The offer still stands, however – once the agency takes “sales without limitations” off the table and commits to reducing the population over time via fertility control and smaller, incremental removals, when necessary, that do not overwhelm adoption demand or the capacity of rescues/sanctuaries to take in Devil’s Garden horses.

More information here on AWHC’s fight to save the Devil’s Garden Wild Horses.