Devil’s Garden update: 195 wild horses captured, 2 dead

A contractor’s helicopter pursues wild horses at Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory in 2016. RTF file photo by Steve Paige.

The U.S. Forest Service has captured 195 wild horses through Thursday, the ninth day of an ongoing helicopter roundup at the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory at Modoc National Forest. 

A total of 94 mares, 78 studs, and 23 foals / weanlings have been captured from California’s last large wild horse herd since the roundup began on Sept. 8.

Two horses have died. Both suffered broken necks from striking gates, according to a USFS spokesman. 

The agency’s goal is to capture and remove 500 wild horses from Devil’s Garden, home of California’s last large wild horse herd, to help “reduce unsustainable impacts on aquatic resources, wildlife, hunting, grazing and other traditional cultural practices,” according to a press release.

USFS has no plans to implement safe, proven and humane fertility control which would allow for Modoc National Forest to phase out future roundups in favor of humane, on-the-range management of wild horses.

USFS in 2013 set an Appropriate Management Level of 206-402 wild horses at 268,750-acre Devil’s Garden — as low as one horse for every 1,305 acres.

Prior to this roundup, USFS said Devil’s Garden was home to 1,663 adult wild horses – an estimate based on 2019 survey results of 1,802 based on census flights. Advocates have argued that census numbers of the Wild Horse Territory have been inflated, while USFS says other partners contend that the number may be low because of tree cover.

By comparison, USFS permits 26,880 Animal Unit Months of private livestock 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.


The fate of the herd – and of wild horses removed from Devil’s Garden – has resulted in litigation pitting RTF and other activists against USFS.

In 2018, USFS captured 932 wild horses Devil’s Garden. As the roundup was set to begin — years after public comment on the planned roundup closed – the USFS announced that it would briefly sell captured horses 10 years old and older with restrictions against slaughter, then, in an unprecedented move, drop those protections.

About 300 older horses ages 10 years and older – including mature stallions and pregnant mares – were placed in jeopardy of being sold to kill-buyers who would transport them to Mexico or Canada for slaughter.

RTF joined other advocates in filing a lawsuit seeking to stop the USFS from selling the older horses to slaughter. USFS was attempting to take advantage of the fact that while Congress has repeatedly barred the Bureau of Land Management from selling wild horses without protections against slaughter and euthanizing healthy horses, lawmakers had not previously specifically prohibited USFS from doing so. 

USFS agreed not to sell any wild horses to slaughter until the court ruled. As the case wore on, all 300 of the older horses were either adopted or sold with restrictions against slaughter — including 12 of the last remaining horses to which RTF gave a new home at its satellite sanctuary in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

RTF successfully lobbied Congress to ensure that the USFS would be barred from using taxpayer dollars to sell wild horses without prohibitions against slaughter or euthanizing healthy horses or burros. With the addition of such a prohibition to its spending bill, the plaintiffs successfully forestalled the unrestricted sale and filed to voluntarily dismiss their case.

Also as a result of the USFS’s actions, a state bill, Assembly Bill 128, supported by a number of horses and animal welfare organizations in the state, including RTF, was also signed into law in an attempt to tighten the existing anti-horse slaughter laws.

In 2019, the USFS captured and removed another 499 wild horses at Devil’s Garden. The agency offered them for adoption three times before opening up sales at $25 apiece but with restrictions against slaughter. Later, the Forest Service dropped the price to $1 per horse with restrictions against slaughter.

Even as the current roundup began, 13 wild horses from the 2019 roundup remained at the forest’s Double Devil corrals, available for sale of adoption.

RTF continues to press the USFS to implement robust programs of proven, safe and humane fertility control that would allow for the phasing out of roundups by slowing, not stopping, wild horse reproduction.

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