Forest Service plan places California wild horses at risk of slaughter

/ Featured, In The News, News, Roundups

A contractor’s helicopter drives wild horses into the trap at Devils Garden during a 2016 roundup.

Statement from Neda DeMayo, Founder and President of Return to Freedom:

“It is devastating that the Agency has decided to take an approach that will prove not only lethal for hundreds of California’s wild free roaming horses, but will set a culture for the USFS that will continue to betray the trust of hundreds of thousands if not millions of California citizens and the remaining few thousand horses on California rangelands. We urge the Agency to rethink this tragic decision immediately and work with us on other alternatives.”

As many as 1,000 wild horses from California’s largest remaining herd face increased risk of death in foreign slaughterhouses under plans by the U.S. Forest Service.

Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation strongly opposes the Forest Service’s (USFS) plan to rid itself of federally protected wild horses by making them available to anyone for nearly nothing with no oversight or restrictions –making them easily disposable through the back door. We join Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other state and national wild horse and animal-welfare organizations in demanding to know how the agency will prevent wild horses from being bought on the cheap and shipped to slaughter in Mexico or Canada.

The Spirit of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 — and overwhelming public opposition to horse slaughter — bedamned, the Forest Service is taking advantage of the U.S. Congress not explicitly placing language prohibiting the Forest Service from selling wild horses without restriction, unlike the restrictions Congress has previously placed on the Bureau of Land Management.

The Forest Service began a month-long helicopter roundup on Wednesday at the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory, located about seven miles north of Alturas, Calif. Sixty-six wild horses were captured and none injured, according to the agency.

Under Forest Service plans, about 300 captured horses ages 10-older will be kept at the new Double Devil Corrals on Forest Service land. There, the agency intends to sell to them with limitations on slaughter for 30 days. After that period, the Forest Service plans to offer them for sale without limitation for as little as $1 apiece.

The estimated 700 or so younger wild horses captured will be transferred to the Bureau of Land Management’s Susanville, Calif., holding corrals, where they will be offered for adoption.

Speaking before the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board on Wednesday, Hope Woodward of the Forest Service said that the Forest Service has contracted with BLM to care for the horses for one year but that it has not solidified plans to move unadopted horses to BLM’s long-term holding pastures — leaving the door open to sales that could result in still more wild horses going to slaughter.

Return to Freedom has a number of other concerns about the roundup:

  • The Forest Service had created a placement committee in 2016 which included advocates, local ranchers, Forest Service employees and community members to execute the placement of the territory’s horses, but is now rushing ahead with the removal of 1000 horses just before winter. This is a slap in face of the efforts and good will of the committee.
  • The roundup’s timing, just before winter, puts a strain on:
    • The horses in holding corrals during harsh weather without shelters
    • The Budget for the cost of feeding more horses adequately during winter weather
    • On the private sector horse community to try and absorb the number of wild horses at the most expensive time of year to feed them and therefore the hardest time of year to place horses.
  • In addition, in 2016 Return to Freedom’s range photographer witnessed the last Devils Garden helicopter roundup. Wild horses were driven over extremely rocky ground by contractor helicopters flying too close to fleeing horses as they tried to navigate land covered in large volcanic rock. A total of 290 wild horses were captured. Terrified stallions were placed into crowded temporary pens where fighting ensued. Only after calls from Return to Freedom to the local Forest Service and their National Program Office in D.C. was the pilot’s behavior changed and the stallions released and others taken to larger holding facilities. These instances did not instill confidence in the Forest Service’s ability to manage roundups there.
  • In 2017, the Forest Service took the unusual step of releasing 53 mares captured during the 2016 roundup after they were passed over for adoption. All were treated with fertility control. This was encouraging, but the agency has not placed a priority on the use of safe, proven and humane fertility control, meaning that the cycle of reproduction and roundups will continue.
  • The Forest Service plans to microchip the horses as opposed to branding. This prevents the horses from being identified at sale yards, auctions and slaughterhouses as federally protected wild horses while adhering to protocol for slaughter sales.

Sadly, this is not the first time that Modoc National Forest has attempted to work in the gray area of the law to the disadvantage of the territory’s wild horses.

In August 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned a decision by the Forest Service to cut by 23,000 acres the area available to wild horses, in a victory Return to Freedom shared with partnering advocates in the suit. After years of managing the area for wild horses and scores of public meetings, the agency in 2013 claimed that its use for wild horses had been an administrative mistake.

The Forest Service says it is conducting the 2018 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. Forest Service planning documents placed the population at 1,124 in 2013.

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.

Wild horse advocates local to the area have urged the Agency to implement a robust fertility control program and expand on its public/private partnerships to develop a proud wild horse conservation program for one the last remaining California herds.