Press release: Return to Freedom, co-plaintiffs claim court win over Devil’s Garden wild horses

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Two geldings photographed just after their arrival at Return to Freedom’s San Luis Obispo, Calif., satellite sanctuary. RTF was able to provide refuge for 12 of the last older Devil’s Garden wild horses from a 2018 roundup, those most at risk of being sold to slaughter.

Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation and a coalition of advocates on Friday filed to voluntarily dismiss a 2018 lawsuit seeking to stop the U.S. Forest Service from selling hundreds of wild horses from California’s last large herd to slaughter.

The plaintiffs did so after successful lobbying by RTF, the Humane Society of the United States and others for the inclusion of Fiscal Year 2020 federal appropriations language barring the Forest Service from selling horses or burros without restriction (to slaughter).

“Our lawsuit prevented the Forest Service from selling horses captured from the Devil’s Garden area to slaughter, and as a result of that and other pressure, Congress subsequently prohibited the Forest Service from its plans through the appropriations process,” said Bruce Wagman of Riley Safer Holmes and Cancila, LLP, attorney for Return to Freedom and its co-plaintiffs. “Thus, we met our goals and therefore are able to dismiss the lawsuit, with the Devil’s Garden horses safe from sale to slaughter.”

Said Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom, “After our successful efforts to have protections for the horses on Forest Service lands inserted into the spending bill, we will continue to work with Congress to ensure that protections against the sale of wild horses to slaughter remain in place. We urge the Forest Service to work with us on other alternatives for wild horse management, like the robust use of safe, proven and humane fertility control to slow reproduction and reduce calls to conduct dangerous costly helicopter roundups.”

The wild horses in question were among 932 captured from California’s last remaining large herd during a 2018 helicopter roundup at the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory in the Modoc National Forest near Alturas, Calif.

As the roundup was set to begin — years after public comment on the planned roundup closed – the Forest Service 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.

Captured wild horses were separated from their family bands and herds and sorted by age and gender, with about 300 older horses ages 10 years and older – including mature stallions and pregnant mares – placed in jeopardy of being sold to kill-buyers who would transport them to Mexico or Canada for slaughter.

Return to Freedom joined the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, Marin Humane, the Humane Society of the Sierra Foothills, and two California humane law enforcement officers, Cindy Machado and Rosemary Frieborn, in filing the suit. A separate group of advocacy organizations also filed suit against the Forest Service.

The Forest Service 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 prohibited the Forest Service from doing so.

While the case proceeded, the agency agreed not to sell any wild horses to slaughter until the court ruled. With Congress’ addition of such a prohibition to its spending bill, the plaintiffs successfully forestalled the unrestricted sale.

In the end, all 300 of the older horses were either adopted or sold with restrictions — including 12 of the last remaining older horses, to which Return to Freedom gave refuge at its American Wild Horse Sanctuary.

The plaintiffs argued the Forest Service’s unrestricted sale plan would violate federal laws, as well as the agency’s own planning directives and management documents, and ignored the purpose and spirit of the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

Past polls have found about 80 percent of Americans oppose horse slaughter. In 1998, Californians passed a ballot measure, Prop. 6, barring horse slaughter in the state, sale of horse meat for human consumption and transportation of horses out of the state for purposes of slaughter.

As a result of the Forest Service’s actions, a state bill, Assembly Bill 128, supported by a number of horses and animal welfare organizations in the state, including Return to Freedom, was signed into law in an attempt to tighten the existing anti-horse slaughter laws.

In 2019, the Forest Service 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. After 30 days, the Forest Service dropped the price to $1 per horse.

The lower price increases concerns about the horses falling into the hands of kill buyers. As of Monday, 102 wild horses remained available for sale at $1 or for adoption at Modoc Forest’s Double Devil Corrals.

Donate to RTF’s Wild Horse Defense Fund

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