U.S. Forest Service Plans Massive Removal(s) of Devil’s Garden Wild Horses

Mary Koncel
Jun 14 · 5 min read

As part of a secret deal cut with local cattle ranchers, the U.S. Forest Service will be removing 800–1,000 horses from the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory (Territory) this fall in its ongoing efforts to reach an unscientific and ridiculously low population limit, misleadingly known as the “Appropriate” Management Level, of just 206–402 horses. The Territory, which consists of 258,000 acres of public lands, is located in northeastern California.

During a Motorized Vehicle Public Meeting on Thursday, June 10th, Forest Service officials announced that the operation will begin in early to mid-September and last about 45 days. Cattoor Livestock Roundups, Inc. was awarded a $681,750 contract to conduct the roundup. That represents only the cost to round up the horses with helicopters. It does not include the hundreds of thousands of dollars to warehouse them at the Double Devil Corrals in the Modoc National Forest, where the Territory is located, or at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Litchfield holding facility.

The Forest Service will sell many of the captured mustangs by the truckload for $1 a piece via a sales program that lacks protocols and procedures to ensure the long-term safety and welfare of the horses being placed into private care. The deficiencies in this program have drawn concern from members of Congress and have resulted in dangerous placements for the horses.

The current plan is an outgrowth of a secret settlement the Forest Service entered into with a group of ranchers who sued the government to compel the removal of wild horses from the public lands where they graze their privately-owned cattle.

As part of the deal, the Forest Service — with strong input from the ranchers — developed an Implementation Strategy that includes six options for reaching the low population limit of as few as 206 horses in two to seven years. Approximately 2,555 to 3,700 would have to be removed to reach that “Appropriate” Management Level, with a total estimated cost of $7.8 million to $17.5 million! None of the options include fertility control, meaning that taxpayers will continue to pay to round up horses the agency could have prevented from being born. This benefits the livestock operators who are profiting from these roundup operations, but the policy is a disaster for American taxpayers and the iconic wild horses whom the vast majority of Americans want to protect.

At the brief meeting, Forest Supervisor Chris Christopherson would not identify what option the agency had chosen — or answer any questions about the roundup operation — instead stating that additional information would be included in an upcoming press release. But the 800–1,000 horses targeted for this fall’s removal indicates that the Forest Service is going for one of the four “Large” or “Medium” gather options that is intended to reach the imposed population limit in two to five years. The decision exposes the Forest Service’s so-called collaboration efforts with all stakeholders, including wild horse advocacy groups, as fraudulent. It’s clear what stakeholders the Forest Service is listening to, and it isn’t the public.

To understand the absurdity of the Forest Service’s continuing obsession with outdated, inhumane, and unsustainable roundups and removals as its only management tool, check out this table from the Implementation Strategy:

The absurdity of the Forest Service’s continuing obsession with outdated, inhumane, and unsustainable roundups and removals as its only management tool is apparent in its census data. In 2016, there were 2,246 horses living in the Territory. But even after removing 2,106 horses over the next four years, there were 1,926 horses in 2020 meaning the population had only been reduced by 320 horses at a cost of $5 million to taxpayers.

Such numbers are very much in line with the findings in the 2013 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program that roundups and removals are not only “expensive” and “unproductive” but also facilitate increased reproduction rates of populations left on the range. Instead, the NAS recommended fertility control, including PZP, as a more humane and effective management tool. In 2018, AWHC offered to fund and implement a PZP pilot project in the Territory, but the Forest Service rejected it.

The Forest Service maintains that “reducing the population helps address impacts on aquatic resources, wildlife, grazing and other traditional cultural practices.” However, it’s obvious from the lawsuit that the real reason for this roundup — as well as future ones — is to appease the ranchers who want to maintain dirt cheap grazing for their livestock on public lands, which is a major contributor to climate change and devastating to rangeland health.

Of particular irony is that Green Valley Corporation, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, is owned by San Jose builder Barry Swenson, who also happens to own Alturas Ranches that includes at least 20,000 private acres for its alfalfa and wild rice growing operations. Mr. Swenson, a millionaire, also grazes cattle on the public lands where the Devil’s Garden wild horses roam for $1.35 per animal per month, a fee that is approximately 94% below market rate thanks to taxpayer subsidies.

While Forest Service officials confirmed that about 500 horses will be headed to the BLM this year, they did not say how many will end up at the Double Devil Corrals that currently has a 350-horse capacity.

This is troubling because the Implementation Strategy includes possibilities for expanding Double Devil to accommodate up to 1,500 horses or contracting for private short-term holding within a “short driving distance” of the Territory to handle the overflow. While the expansion would allow for more horses to be subjected to the questionable care of the Forest Service, the contracts would most likely be awarded to local ranchers who would reap yet another financial benefit from the removal of the horses.

Currently, about 35 horses from the 2020 operation still remain at the Double Devil Corrals waiting for new “happy homes” — a euphemism developed by the Forest Service for horses who were removed from their federally designated habitat with many sold for only $1 and no requirements for follow up.

AWHC will continue to provide updates on the Forest Service’s plan for the Devil’s Garden wild horses.

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