Appeals court overturns Forest Service decision to shrink California wild horse territory

Wild horses flee a helicopter during the 2016 roundup at the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory in Northern California. RTF file photo by Steve Paige.


Late Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to shrink the size of the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory in Northern California by 23,000 acres. The agency must now immediately ensure that federal protected wild horses are allowed access to roam on the disputed acreage in the middle of the territory.

Devil’s Garden is the Forest Service’s last large wild horse territory in California and home to one of the state’s most significant, federally-protected wild horse populations.

The court’s action resolves a lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund on behalf of Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation, the American Wild Horse Campaign and wild horse and burro advocate Carla Bowers in 2014 challenging a Forest Service management plan that called for eliminating wild horses from the center section of the territory, creating two non-intermingling wild horse herds. Under the Forest Service plan, neither herd would be large enough to be genetically self-sustaining as required under federal law.

“The D.C. Circuit sent a strong message to the Forest Service that it must manage these public lands in accordance with federal laws that afford these wild horses protection from death, harassment, or other forms of interference with their wild and free-roaming behaviors,” said William S. Eubanks II, of Meyer Glitzenstein and Eubanks, who along with David Zaft, pro-bono legal counsel retained by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, represented the wild horse advocacy groups in the lawsuit.

“The federal courts have once again reined in a government agency intent on turning the public lands over to private livestock grazing interests and eliminating federally protected wild horses in the process,” Eubanks added.

Friday’s decision, which came nearly two months after the court criticized the Forest Service’s unexplained and arbitrary elimination of more than 23,000 acres of public lands in California from the longstanding wild horse territory, was issued in response to a rehearing petition filed by the plaintiffs. The petition asked the court to vacate – i.e., set aside – the agency’s decision to ensure that the Forest Service would no longer exclude horses from the abundant forage and water located in this region of the Modoc National Forest. The D.C. Circuit granted the rehearing petition and amended its earlier opinion, agreeing that this more drastic remedy was necessary to hold the Forest Service’s feet to the fire in opening this area immediately to wild hroses.

The court’s amended opinion can be found here. It states, “The American Wild Horse [Preservation] Campaign and other plaintiffs filed suit alleging that the Service’s revamping of the territorial lines violated numerous federal laws.  We agree. A 23,000-acre tract of land and two decades of agency management cannot be swept under the rug as a mere administrative mistake.  We accordingly reverse in part and remand for the Service to address rather than to ignore the relevant history.”

The Forest Service began to implement its plan in 2016, with the helicopter roundup and removal of 290 wild horses. The Service recently announced that 53 of the captured mares would be returned to the Territory.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1979 to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. To accomplish this mission, the Animal Legal Defense Fund files high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm; provides free legal assistance and training to prosecutors to assure that animal abusers are punished for their crimes; supports tough animal protection legislation and fights harmful legislation; and provides resources and opportunities to law students and professionals to advance the emerging field of animal law. For more information, please visit

Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation is a national nonprofit dedicated to preserving the freedom, diversity, and habitat of America’s wild horses and burros through sanctuary, education, advocacy and conservation, while enriching the human spirit through direct experience with the natural world.

The American Wild Horse Campaign (formerly known as the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign) is a national wild horse advocacy organization whose grassroots mission is endorsed by a coalition of more than 50 horse advocacy, public interest, and conservation organizations. AWHC is dedicated to preserving the American wild horse in viable, free-roaming herds for generations to come, as part of our national heritage.

Meyer, Glitzenstein & Eubanks is the nation’s leading public interest law firm with offices in Washington, DC and Ft. Collins, Colorado.


53 mares to be released at Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory, Sept. 27, 2017

‘Oops’ is no defense, court says in nixing horse decision, Aug. 7, 2017

Federal court orders restoration of 23,000 acres for California wild horses, Aug. 6, 2017

Press release: Court finds U.S. Forest Service illegally cut habitat for California wild horse, Aug. 4, 2017

Wild horse advocates, Forest Service face off over Devil’s Garden, Jan. 12, 2017

Wild horses get favorable hearing in battle with California ranchers, Jan. 11, 2017

Judges corral arguments over wild horse protections in remote California county, Jan. 6, 2017

Jan. 12 meeting set on Devil’s Garden, Calif., wild horse plan, Dec. 7, 2016

Devil’s Garden update: California wild horses ready for adoption, Nov. 29, 2016

Devil’s Garden Days Six & Seven: Roundup ends with 290 California wild horses captured, Oct. 2, 2016


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