Devils Garden update: Seven captured wild horses with pigeon fever killed

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Captured wild horses in temporary holding pens during a 2016 helicopter roundup at Devils Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory. RTF file photo by Steve Paige.

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The U.S. Forest Service on Saturday captured 39 more wild horses during the ongoing helicopter roundup at the Devils Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory in Northern California.

That brings the total number of wild horses captured to 784.

The Forest Service has also announced that since a positive test for pigeon fever on Oct. 24, a total of seven captured wild horses have been euthanized “to protect the herd” after showing symptoms of the bacterial infection so named because it causes large abscesses to form on a horse’s chest or abdomen.

It’s unusual to euthanize a horse for pigeon fever under normal circumstances (click here to read more about pigeon fever) The Forest Service has provided no information about whether the wild horses suffered from complications or if any steps were taken to separate or treat the affected animals, saying only that less than 1% of captured wild horses have shown symptoms.

“We are lucky to have the expertise of the contractors, partners and forest personnel who are taking care of these horses,” Modoc National Forest Supervisor Amanda McAdams said in a press release. “They noticed the symptoms early and we were able to put a plan into place that was recommended by the contract veterinarian and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.”

The pigeon fever-related deaths bring the total number of wild horses killed during the roundup to 14 and two mares have miscarried, though the Forest Service has provided little detail. Four other adult horses have been put down for “chronic preexisting conditions” and two from acute injuries, which are typically defined as injuries suffered during capture or in holding corrals. One foal also “died in holding,” according to the agency.

The Forest Service plans to capture and remove 1,000 wild horses from Devils Garden, part of Modoc National Forest near Alturas, Calif. Of those, an estimated 300 wild horses ages 10-older will be sold with some limitations for 60 days after being made ready for placement. Those limitations include prohibiting the purchase of wild horses for human consumption as well as providing appropriate transportation and “healthy accommodations.”

Beginning as soon as Jan. 10, older wild horses not purchased during that period will be sold without limitation, for as little as $1, putting them in danger of falling into the hands of kill buyers who will transport the animals to Canada or Mexico for slaughter.

The Forest Service has sought to exploit a sort of loophole in restrictions the U,S. Congress placed on the sale of wild horses in its 2018 budget. Congress barred unrestricted sale of wild horses by the Bureau of Land Management but did not do so for the Forest Service.

Return to Freedom has joined a coalition of national and local advocates that filed a lawsuit to stop a planned unrestricted sale of wild horses from Devils Garden, which would place hundreds on animals in jeopardy of being sold to slaughter. The case is pending.

The Forest Service’s plans have drawn opposition from wild horse and animal welfare advocates, including Return to Freedom, and demands from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to explain how the Forest Service intends to keep captured wild horses from going to slaughter against the wishes of Congress and the public.

The remaining 700 or so younger horses, ages 9-younger, will be transported to Bureau of Land Management holding corrals in Susanville, Calif., where they will be offered for adoption over the next year. Speaking before the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board last month, a Forest Service official said that the agency had not made arrangements for the younger horses to be moved to a long-term BLM pasture after the year ends, meaning that they too could be vulnerable to sale to kill buyers.

The Forest Service says it is conducting the roundup “to help address impacts on aquatic resources, wildlife, grazing and traditional cultural practices.” “Reducing the population will allow range and riparian ecological conditions to recover, while also supporting wild horse herd health by reducing competition for limited food, water and habitat,” the Forest Service wrote in a press release.

The 232,520-acre Devils Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory has an agency-set “Appropriate Management Level” of 206-402 wild horses — as few as one horse for every 1,129 acres. The Forest Service estimates there are about 3,900 wild horses at Devils Garden.

By comparison, the Forest Service permits 26,880 Animal Unit Months of private grazing on the wild horse territory. One Animal Unit Month is defined as a month’s forage for one horse, one cow / calf pair or five sheep. Actual livestock use varied between 63-73% of the permitted maximum from 2006-12, according to Forest Service planning documents. To view planning documents, click here.

Viewing the roundup

A limited number of members of the public will be able to view the helicopter roundup on a first-come, first-served basis. They must call (530) 233-8738 to make a reservation, then arrive at 225 W. Eighth St. in Alturas, Calif., by 6 a.m. Forest personnel will guide them to the parking location. Tours of the sorting facility will be offered after daily roundup operations.

Adoption / sale event

The Forest Service has announced plans to hold a wild horse adoption and sale event on Nov. 16-17 at the Double Devil Corrals at Modoc National Forest near Alturas, Calif. The event will run from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on both days.

Horses ages 10-older will first be available first to adopters based on the order in which they’ve applied, then to buyers for restricted sale in the order in which they applied. Sale restrictions include the ability to provide an adequate home and transportation as well as a prohibition against selling horses for slaughter.

Adopted wild horses will cost $125, sale horses $25.

The Forest Service will retain the title on adopted wild horses for one year, meaning that horses can be returned at any time during that year. Those that purchase wild horses will receive their horse’s title immediately.

As of Wednesday, more than 200 older wild horses had been captured, including pregnant mares, according to the Forest Service.

Horses available for adoption / sale will have had their vaccinations and Coggins testing by the time of the event. The Forest Service plans to geld all of the older stallions on or around Nov. 12, unless adopters or buyers make arrangements to take intact mature stallions.

Older mares with foals are being transported to the BLM’s Litchfield corrals in Susanville, Calif., where they will be offered for adoption — along with captured wild horses ages 9 and under — beginning in early to mid-December. Details on those adoptions have not yet been announced.

For more information, including adoption and sale forms and links to photos of captured wild horses, see 

You Can Help

Return to Freedom is already making preparations for the rescue of older horses. Should the U.S. Forest Service go forward with their disastrous plan to lift all restrictions on sales of an estimated 300 wild horses ages 10-older from Devils Garden Wild Horse Territory, this puts them in jeopardy of being purchased by kill buyers. To donate to Return to Freedom’s Wild Horse Defense Fund for the Devils Garden response effort:


Please click here if you can provide a good home to two or more wild horses, especially those ages 10-older, offer transportation for rescued horses, or would like to donate to support the rescue effort.

Take Action

Please click here to send a message to U.S. Forest Service Officials opposing the unrestricted sale of wild horses.

* Please click here to send a letter to your members of Congress urging them to oppose the Bureau of Land Management sale policy, which allows any buyer to purchase up to 24 wild horses with no waiting period, no oversight and no questions asked.

* Please keep calling U. S. Senators on the Conference Committee and urge them to continue standing up for wild horses and burros and opposing slaughter. Click here for suggested talking points and a list of phone numbers.