Amid the start of California’s largest wild horse roundup – historically laden with problems – the nation’s leading wild horse protection organization, the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) – is calling on the United States Forest Service (USFS) for greater transparency and the humane treatment of these treasured wild horses.
The USFS capture operation, beginning today under the helm of the US Department of Agriculture, aims to remove 500 federally-protected wild horses from the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory in California’s Modoc National Forest. Since 2018, the USFS has captured approximately 2,443 wild horses from this territory.
The roundup is proceeding despite Congressional concerns about the welfare of California’s largest wild horse herd.
The roundup is conducted by Cattoor Livestock, a private livestock helicopter company contracted by both the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management despite documented instances of abuse against wild horses and burros during federal operations. Additionally, roundups via helicopter commonly pose an increased risk of horse injury, separation, and death. Disposition records from last year's roundup also raise concerns about the contracted holding facility’s ability to safely warehouse the captured animals.
AWHC has historically challenged USFS’ Devil’s Garden capture operations. The most serious animal welfare violations in which AWHC has called for greater oversight include:
- USFS’s Lack of a comprehensive and enforceable animal welfare program
- USFS’ apparent lack of policies and procedures to screen potential adopters
- USFS’ failure to freeze brand horses (making them indistinguishable from domestic horses/non-federally protected animals)
“AWHC has offered to implement—and pay for—a humane fertility control program for the Devil’s Garden mustangs but USFS continually rebuffs our offer. The agency is staying its outdated course – rejecting modern science and continuing with more roundups and removals. This is an ineffective management strategy that is expensive for American taxpayers and nothing short of cruel for the horses. More so, it flies in the face of Congressional calls for change, public opinion, and even California’s Attorney General.” said Mary Koncel, AWHC Program Specialist.
Solutions and alternatives to the mass roundups AWHC has presented to USFS in relation to the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory include:
- Implement comprehensive animal welfare standards, thorough vetting of adopters, and a reversible immunocontraceptive fertility control vaccine program.
- Manage the remaining Devil’s Garden horses humanely in the wild via a comprehensive PZP fertility control program and reallocation of forage resources away from subsidized livestock to maintain the current wild horse population, save taxpayers money, and protect this unique California mustang herd.
- Implement range improvements such as the development of additional water sources and removal of fencing (to enhance the ability of the Devil’s Garden wild horses to utilize the entire Territory instead of forcing them to concentrate in certain areas).
- Develop a Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program that would define standards, training, and monitoring for conducting roundups and ensure humane transport, care, and handling of the animals who are removed and placed in the care of the USFS.
September 25, 2022: 8 wild horses were captured today.
September 24, 2022: 23 wild horses lost their freedom today.
September 23, 2022: Approximately 18 horses were captured today.
The trap site was moved to Logan Slough, the location of two past roundups and removals in 2019 and 2021
The AWHC representative was the only public observer.
The observation site was located over 11/2 away from the trap in a stand of trees. While it offered a distant view of the helicopter pushing the horses across an open expanse of the plateau, the wings of the trap and the trap pen, which was hidden in the tree line, were not visible, making it impossible to see the condition of the horses as they entered the pen or how they were handled once in it. Also, because of the heavily forested area, it was not possible to see how far the horses were driven before reaching the trap pen.
The helicopter made three runs.
The first run started at 10:50 am. At 12:30 pm, the helicopter could be seen driving two horses trotting along the tree lines for about 1 mile toward the trap. A few minutes later, the helicopter flew off so it’s assumed the horses were in the trap pen.
After refilling, the helicopter began the second at 12:40 pm. At 2:00 pm, the helicopter pushed seven more horses out of the tree line at the same place as in the first run. Once the horses, who were cantering, reached the trap wings, they veered off several times, trying to avoid the trap pen. However, the helicopter kept circling above the horses and eventually captured them.
The helicopter left for the third run at 2:15 pm and by 2:35 pm was driving ten horses from the same direction and into the trap wings and the trap pen at a canter.
The operation was called at 3:00 pm with 11 stallions, 6 mares, and 2 foals losing their freedom.
The horses were trailered to the USFS’s Double Devil Wild Horse Corral. All the horses at the corral were in good or excellent condition, but skittish. Some of the mares were processed and were wearing neck tags.
To date, 140 horses have been captured either by helicopter or bait trapping.
September 22, 2022: 12 wild horses have been rounded.
Once again, the trap site was located at Bailey’s Tank. Besides the AWHC representative, two other members of the public came to observe.
The helicopter made two runs. After flying for about 1½ hours in the first run, the helicopter could be seen above the tree line slightly east of the trap.
Around 10:40am, it pushed five horses, including one foal, out of the trees about a mile away and then into the wings of the trap. All entered the pen at a trot or canter. None appeared to be sweating. The second run began soon after and followed the same pattern. At 12:00pm, the helicopter could be heard but not seen east of the trap and above the tree line.
A half hour later, an estimated seven horses, including one foal, became visible, and the helicopter drove them into the trap wings and pen at the same speed as the first run. Although the observation site provided a good view of the horses moving into the wings of the trap, the trap pen was obscured by trees.
The operation was called at 1:00pm.
Later in the afternoon, the USFS allowed viewing of the horses at its Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Corrals. Water and hay were plentiful, and the pens were large. Many of the horses were skittish. All were in good to excellent shape, with body condition scores ranging from 4-6. Several of the stallions were quite impressive with their muscular necks and sheer size. Also, the horses removed so far seem more varied in color than in previous years. For example, buckskins are quite common along with many roans and some deep rich blacks.
Tomorrow the trap site will be moved. No deaths have been reported since the operation began.
September 21, 2022: 3 horses were captured today.
Muddy roads caused by last night’s rain delayed the start of today’s operation until early afternoon. The helicopter made two runs – the first one at ~12:00pm and the second at ~2:30pm.
The trap was located at Bailey’s Tank which is north of the Big Sage Reservoir. The observation site in a stand of trees was less than a quarter of a mile from the wings of the trap, providing a clear view of it.
Although the trap was about 400 feet away, trees made it difficult to see. AWHC had the only public observer documenting the roundup and removal.
The operation was called at about 4:15 pm due to an approaching storm. On the way back to the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals for viewing, a lone bay stallion was visible under a tree about five miles from the trap site.
To date, 100 horses have lost their freedom.
September 17, 2022: 7 wild horses were captured.
AWHC's field representative was the only observer on site today. The Cattoors captured a band of 7, then transported them to the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals. They appeared in good shape and weight.
Later I stopped at Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals to look at some of the horses captured this week.
The Forest Service has limited staff and will not allow public observation on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday.
September 16, 2022: 4 wild horses were captured today.
AWHC's field representative was 1 of 5 members of the public that showed up for public observation.
After being at the trap site most of the day, they only managed to bring in a single band of 4.
Later we went searching for horses near Big Sage Reservoir, unfortunately, all we found was more cattle.
September 15, 2022: 22 wild horses were captured.
AWHC's field representative was 1 of 2 members of the public onsite to view the operation. In total, 22 wild horses were captured -- 17 by helicopter and 5 by bait trapping.
Our observers looked on as private cattle wandered around the trap area as horses were pushed into the trap. Two horses escaped, avoiding the trap.
A few of the horses attempted to escape by jumping over the trap panels. We saw a lot of buckskins today. All appeared in good shape and weight. A couple of younger foals were captured, we saw one of them paired up with his mother at the holding facility.
Later we went searching for wild horses, but only found cows everywhere we looked.
September 14, 2022: 13 wild horses were captured
AWHC's field representative was one of two members of the public onsite. In total, 13 wild horses were captured. Cattoor Livestock captured two groups of horses, while several others escaped by avoiding the trap. Some horses attempted to jump over the trap panels unsuccessfully. Every horse appeared in great shape and weight.
The first day to allow public observation at the Devil's Garden roundup.We saw bay roans, bays, and buckskins.