506 Horses Lose Their Freedom — 5 Lose Their Lives — and Lack of Transparency Continues
The U.S. Forest Service ended its roundup of wild horses from the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory (DGWHT) on the Modoc National Forest (MNF) in Alturas, CA on October 17th. Originally, the agency planned to remove 600 horses but ended up taking off 506 horses — 217 stallions, 225 mares, and 64 foals.
During the month-long operation, five horses died — one acute from acute injuries and four from chronic long-term health issues. But the MNF has yet to release that information to the public in its press releases or on its Facebook page.
Lack of Transparency
AWHC learned about the deaths after emailing the MNF several times. Initially, it refused to respond to our questions until after the roundup was finished, explaining that the staff was “stretched pretty thin” because it was “still supporting fires in the region.”
While AWHC certainly understands that fires are an ongoing priority — and appreciates the efforts of the Forest Service in fighting them, the reality is that the MNF tracks information on deaths and should have made it regularly available to the public, particularly because the roundup is funded by taxpayers’ money and the Devil’s Garden horses are being removed from their federally-designated habitat.
Remember that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) includes deaths of horses, as well as injuries, in its daily roundup/removal reports — as the MNF did in the past in its press releases.
Eventually, the MNF did supply us with the number of deaths, but it would not provide any details about them, including the cause or the ages/genders of the horses. Instead, it asked that AWHC file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which is a very lengthy process.
But the MNF’s aversion to transparency doesn’t stop with the deaths. AWHC also asked about the Devil’s Garden horses who were shipped to the BLM’s Bruneau Off-Range Wild Horse Corrals because the Forest Service’s own corral, Double Devil, can only hold between 350 and 400 horses.
In its response, the MNF stated that 142 horses were transferred to Bruneau, which is ~425 miles from Alturas, CA. However, it would not answer our questions about when the horses were shipped or what horses were shipped. Once again, it asked that AWHC file a FOIA request for the information.
The Bruneau corrals is owned by J. R. Simplot Company, a billion-dollar international agricultural corporation. The BLM pays it to warehouse horses there at a rate of about $5.00 per horses per day. Located on 80 acres, the facility can accommodate up to 1,120 wild horses in 70,000 square foot pens that can hold 100 horses.
Questionable Explanation of Low Numbers
According to the MNF, the agency’s efforts to capture 600 Devil’s Garden horses were thwarted by “challenging horses and changing weather patterns” — meaning that the horses hid under the cover of the trees during the roundup and that wind and rain kept the helicopter from flying, especially in the last week of the 30-day contract with Cattoor Livestock Roundup, Inc.
That said, AWHC and other groups believe the difficulty in finding horses is attributed to there being far fewer of them on the DGWHT than the Forest Services has maintained.
A 2021 population census commissioned by the Forest Service estimated 1,926 adult horses. The goal of this fall’s roundup and removals — as well as three others in the past three years — high is part of the agency’s never-ending quest to reach an unscientific Appropriate Management Level of just 206 to 402 horses on the 258,000-acre DGWHT in order to make room for continued grazing of privately-owned cattle and sheep.
The Biggest Winners
Not surprisingly, in one way or another, the livestock industry — or as we often refer to it, the Cowboy Cartel — is once again the big winner as a result of the roundup of wild horses not only from the DGWHT but also on public lands managed by the BLM.
First in line is Simplot. Reportedly, it’s one of the county’s top 10 cattle producers as well as the country’s largest holder of federal grazing permits, including at least 1 million acres of BLM and Forest Service grazing permits in ID, UT, NV, and OR. The current federal grazing fee is $1.35 per animal unit month on public lands.
Although Simplot doesn’t hold grazing permits on the DGWHT, as mentioned, it does own the Bruneau corrals. Therefore, in addition to scoring dirt cheap grazing across the West, it’s making a chunk of change on the 142 Devil’s Garden horses who were shipped to Bruneau and the thousands or so BLM horses already stored there.
In 2018, the Bruneau corrals, which is closed to the public except during a once-a-year public “tour,” was closed due to an outbreak of strangles that likely contributed to 101 stillborn fetuses as well as the deaths of 34 foals and 48 mares at the facility.
A little closer to home, Alturas Ranches, a large farming and ranching enterprise, is also benefiting from the removal of the Devil’s Garden horses. Owned by millionaire San Jose developer Barry Swenson, it holds grazing permits for its cattle on the DGWHT and was, in fact, a plaintiff on a 2018 lawsuit against the Forest Service, seeking the immediate removal of over 2,000 wild horses from the DGWHT.
Alturas Ranches also grows alfalfa and grass hay, among other crops, on its 50,000 acres of land in Modoc County. One steady customer for that hay is the BLM that feeds it to the horses in holding corrals in CA, OR, and NV. Between 2009 and 2020, federal contracts exceeded $1 million.
So, despite the lawsuit’s claim that “the wild horse overpopulation is causing damage to Plaintiffs’ livestock operations, livelihoods, and way of life,” Alturas Ranches seems to be doing quite well — turning out its cattle on public land while using its own land to grow hay that’s reaping huge profits on the backs of rounded up wild horses.
Unfortunately, as in the past, the biggest losers are the 506 Devil’s Garden horses who no longer have their freedom or family bands and the American public that’s continuing to fund their eradication for the benefit of the Cowboy Cartel.
AWHC will soon be filing FOIA requests on the disposition of the Devil’s Garden removed during the 2021 roundup. We’ll keep you updated.