Largest wild horse herd in California to be thinned in the Modoc National Forest
ALTURAS, California––Heavy rains brought the largest wild horse population in California a short reprieve before the start of potentially the most controversial wild horse gather of 2018. But the rains gave the horses just one more day to run free.
Modoc National Forest personnel and Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc., of Nephi, Utah, collecting horses for the Bureau of Land Management since 1978, on October 10, 2018 began gathering and removing as many as 1,000 wild horses from the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory on October 10, 2018.
Says the Modoc National Forest web site, “Removal of some wild horses as prescribed in the Wild Horse Territory Management Plan will allow recovery of range and riparian ecological conditions, as well as reduce damage to fences and competition among wild horses and other uses.”
Modoc National Forest supervisor Amanda McAdams argues in both a PowerPoint slide presentation and an online video that the Devil’s Garden horse habitat, with an officially designated appropriate management level of only 206 to 402 wild horses as of 2013, is now critically stressed.
Forest Service favors contraception
As many as 4,000 wild horses are believed to roam the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory and adjacent National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property.
McAdams favors “fertility treatment using [the contraceptive] PZP,” she says, along with “actions to adjust herd sex ratio to 50/50,” which would slow the rate of horse reproduction.
But McAdams believes the Forest Service is out of wiggle room for accommodating wild horses in the present abundance, especially after cutting back permitted livestock grazing 55% in 2014, 50% in 2015 and more than 50% in 2016, triggering litigation from ranchers in 2017.
“Exploiting a legal loophole”
Counters the American Wild Horse Campaign, “The Forest Service is exploiting a legal loophole to sell an estimated 300 wild horses “without restriction,” allowing kill buyers to purchase a truckload of 36 horses once a week until they are gone. The kill buyers will then ship the horses to Canada, where they will be sold to slaughter plants to produce horsemeat for foreign consumption.”
Technically this would violate Proposition 6, the Prohibition of Horse Slaughter and Sale of Horsemeat for Human Consumption Act of 1998, but the 1998 law could be enforced only if evidence could be obtained before the horses leave California jurisdiction of specific intent on the part of the Forest Service, horse transporters, or horse buyers to send the horses to slaughter for human consumption. The 1998 law does not address slaughter for animal consumption.
At least 300 older horses at risk
Alleged the American Wild Horse Campaign in a prepared media statement, “The [Forest] Service intends to send an estimated 700 younger captured mustangs to the BLM’s Litchfield holding corrals near Susanville for adoption, but an estimated 300 older horses (age 10 and over) will be sent to a temporary holding facility partially funded and managed by the Modoc County Farm Bureau and the University of California Cooperative Extension, which represent ranchers who hold permits to graze livestock” within the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory.
Charged the American Wild Horse Campaign, “Both organizations support selling ‘excess’ wild horses for slaughter and seek a drastic reduction in the wild horse population in order to increase commercial cattle grazing. The Forest Service will allow just 30 days after the horses are processed for legitimate rescues and adopters to take them. After that time, they will be made available for sale without limitation for slaughter.”
“Forest Service not bound by 1971 law”
Acknowledges the American Wild Horse Campaign, “The Bureau of Land Management – the federal agency that manages the majority of America’s wild horses and burros – is prohibited via a rider in the annual Interior appropriations legislation from selling [wild equines] for slaughter. But the Forest Service is not technically bound by that prohibition.”
Modoc National Forest administrations since 1971 have voluntarily followed the rules imposed on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service property by the Wild & Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act, but “The Trump administration is starkly changing that policy,” the American Wild Horse Campaign says.
Out of time for herd reduction
The American Wild Horse Campaign recommendation for the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory is that the Forest Service should “reduce the wild horse population humanely over time by making removals incremental so that humane placement of horses can be assured,” in tandem “with a robust PZP program in order to reduce population growth rates in the Territory,” together with further reductions in livestock grazing.
But that might not be either ecologically, politically, or legally viable.
“Livestock help to manage vegetation to reduce fire risk, and provide nutrients to the land,” points out Ching Lee, assistant editor of the California Farm Bureau Federation publication Ag Alert.
Fires & lawsuit
These are significant considerations in a region devastated by wildfires in recent years, including in 2018 alone the 39,000 acre Stone Fire in Modoc County, more than 100,000 acres of wildfires in Shasta County, less than 100 miles to the southwest, and the 229,000 acre Carr Fire, about 150 miles to the southwest.
Beyond that, in October 20, 2017 several of the 74 ranchers who hold 89 grazing leases in the Modoc National Forest sued the National Forest Service and McAdams in her capacity as Modoc National Forest supervisor, alleging that “Defendant’s failure to control excess animals within the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory causes the loss or diminution of vegetation, decreases water quantity and quality, and increases the risk of wildfire on the Modoc National Forest and adjacent private lands.”
“Decided to entirely eliminate livestock”
Rather than reduce the horse population as required by the Wild & Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act of 1971, the ranchers contend, McAdams “decided to entirely eliminate livestock grazing from the two grazing allotments with the largest concentration of wild horses.”
Elaborated Scott Buffon for Courthouse News, “The Devil’s Garden Preservation Group, Wilson Ranches and Green Valley Corp. doing business as MS Ranch sued the Forest Service in Federal Court, represented by Dennis Porter in Sacramento and the Western Resources Legal Center in Portland, Oregon.
Proceedings conditionally stayed
“Wilson Ranches says it spent $150,000 for a grazing permit in the Devil’s Garden Plateau 15 years ago,” Buffon summarized, “has run cattle on the plateau for nine generations, and informed the Forest Service about the [horse]overpopulation in 2010, 2013 and 2014. In response, it says, the Forest Service reduced its livestock permit from 600 cattle to 300,” before cutting the Wilson Ranches grazing allotment for 2018 at Pine Springs to zero.
Proceedings in the lawsuit were stayed in May 2018, pending actions by McAdams and Modoc National Forest to resolve the plaintiff ranchers’ grievances. The stay requires McAdams to report progress to the court every 60 days. Her most recent report was filed on September 12, 2018.
221 horses gathered in 2016
Modoc National Forest has in truth tried to reduce the Devil’s Garden Plateau horse population since February 2016, when an aerial survey found 2,246 adult horses on the range––nearly twice as many as a similar survey found in February 2013.
“In the fall of 2016, the Modoc National Forest conducted the first wild horse gather in more than ten years from the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory,” the Modoc National Forest web site recounts. “221 horses were sent to the BLM Litchfield holding facility from tribal and private lands near the territory.”
Of these horses, 55 were adopted out, 40 “were transferred to another Forest Service facility for training and adoption,” and “seven horses went to an inmate training program in Arizona,” leaving 119 horses either still in custody or unaccounted for.
The 2016 Devil’s Garden gather came against backdrop of litigation brought in March 2014 by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, American Wild Horse Campaign, the Return to Freedom horse sanctuary, and individual horse advocate Carla Bowers against a proposed “correction” of Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory mapping which allegedly would have facilitated a “plan to eliminate about 40 square miles of territory and reduce the horse population by 80%,” according to an Associated Press summary of the case.
“The current horse population is about 1,100 and the agency’s plan would remove about 900, the lawsuit claims,” said Associated Press.
Explained Courthouse News reporter Tim Ryan, “The Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory was first [legally] described back in 1975 as containing two tracts of land separated by a 23,000-acre section in the middle that was not protected. Making up just a seventh of the 1.6-million-acre forest, the two tracts combined cover approximately 236,000 acres.
“When the U.S. Forest Service published a forest plan for Modoc in 1991, however, it announced that the forest has a wild horse territory measuring 258,000 acres.
“The plan did not include a copy of the map,” Ryan summarized, “but some years earlier, the agency had mistakenly depicted the two territories and their middle section as one contiguous area. In the two-plus decades it took for the service to address this error, wild horses were actively managed” in the disputed 23,000 acres.
“When the Forest Service finally did acknowledge the error,” Ryan continued, “it conducted no further analysis before opting to redraw the lines with the middle section now excluded,” exposing the horses there to removal.
“A 23,000 acre tract of land and two decades of agency management cannot be swept under the rug as a mere administrative mistake,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Patricia Millett, of Washington D.C., adding “Blinders may work for horses, but they are no good for administrative agencies.”
The conflict between wild horses and ranchers over grazing access in the Modoc National Forest is only one of many conflicts involving the status of the Devil’s Garden horses.
Portions of the habitat have been logged at least since 1867. The region supported as many as 12 sawmills in the years before the Modoc National Forest was established as the Modoc Forest Reserve in 1904. By 1912 it was considered “logged out,” but logging later resumed, and is expected to increase as result of a May 2018 federal court ruling, against a case brought by the Conservation Congress, that a planned 8,390-acre logging project may proceed.
Elk, pronghorn, pumas & juniper
Another influential stakeholder in Modoc National Forest decision making is the pro-hunting Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which has at least since 2008 made almost annual grants to fund clearing juniper from parts of the forest to improve elk habitat.
Juniper, tending to thrive in areas heavily grazed by horses, is also a concern of the Institute for Wildlife Studies.
“In late 2015 we initiated a study to examine the movements and food habits of mountain lions in northeastern California,” says the Institute for Wildlife Studies web site. “As part of our ongoing study of the ecology of pronghorn in that region of California, we discovered that a high percentage of the mortality of adult pronghorn was caused by predation by mountain lions. Because pronghorn usually occupy open sagebrush steppe habitat, biologists were surprised to learn that an ambush hunter like mountain lions could successfully prey upon pronghorn.
“Changing vegetation structure”
“It is thought that the changing vegetation structure on the Modoc Plateau may be contributing to the increased ability of mountain lions to prey upon pronghorn,” the Institute for Wildlife Studies concluded. “Woodland habitat, made up primarily by encroaching juniper forest, has decreased the more open habitat historically characteristic of the plateau, and perhaps provided greater opportunities for mountain lions to get close enough to pronghorn to make successful attacks.”
Though the decline of pronghorn in the Modoc National Forest has been noted by many others, much of the habitat remains open to pronghorn hunting during a 9-day rifle season and a 14-day bowhunting season.
Wolves, however, are the most controversial species believed to be either already in the Modoc National Forest or somewhere nearby
“Seven years after an Oregon wolf named OR-7 caused an international sensation by taking a historic pilgrimage through California,” wrote Peter Fimrite for the San Francisco Chronicle in May 2018, “his offspring are settling in the Golden State, starting families and giving every indication that the howling canines are here to stay. Four of OR-7’s progeny have been detected in California this year and last.
Lost pack may have been killed
“The last wild gray wolf in California before OR-7 showed up was killed in 1924,” Fimrite mentioned, but added that “Although conservationists are ecstatic, there is a disturbing element about the uptick in wolf activity. The first breeding pair of wolves in California [since the return of wolves] had five puppies in the spring of 2015, all of them sporting distinctive black coats. The black wolves, known as the Shasta Pack, killed and ate a calf in November 2015. That month was also the last time the entire pack was known to be together.”
One lone young male from the pack was detected by trail cameras in May 2016, and again in March 2017, after wandering into Nevada, where he was “the first wolf verified in Nevada in nearly 100 years,” Fimrite wrote.
The fate of the rest of the is unknown. Noted Fimrite, “Amaroq Weiss, the West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, believes they were gunned down. Ranchers in the area had previously threatened to ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ if any of the sharp-toothed meat-eaters got near their livestock.”
Project to Reform Public Land Grazing Practices
A year after OR-7 entered California, Project to Reform Public Land Grazing Practices in Northern California coordinator Felice Pace “traveled to Alturas in Modoc County to begin a dialogue with Modoc National Forest managers and range staff concerning the return of wolf packs,” she posted to the organization’s web site.
“Along with the California Wolf Center and other environmental organizations,” Pace promised, “we plan to work with responsible agencies, grazing permittees, agricultural organizations and local communities, to manage the return of the gray wolf in a manner that minimizes and effectively manages livestock-wolf interactions and conflicts.”
More recently, without mentioning horses, Pace posted that “When cattle are left unmanaged for months in mountains where the headwaters are replete with springs, wet meadows and willow wetlands, the result is a disaster. Streambanks are trampled, riparian vegetation destroyed, and headwater willow wetlands are fragmented and dried out.”
Sage grouse too?
These are almost exactly the same concerns that Modoc National Forest supervisor McAdams and others voice about horse grazing––and illustrate––in the Forest Service video promoting the upcoming horse removals.
There is also “one part of the [Modoc National] Forest that has habitat for and a population of sage grouse,” Pace mentioned in passing, citing the species which has been involved in perhaps more public lands related litigation than any other since 2005, albeit rivaled by wolves, grizzly bears, salmon, and spotted owls.
How horses got there
According to the Modoc National Forest web pages, “Historically, horses have run on the Devil’s Garden Plateau for more than 140 years. Many of the early horses escaped from settlers or were released when their usefulness as domestic animals ended. In later years, ranchers released their domestic horses out to graze, and then gathered them as they were needed. Not all were ever captured.
“With the passage of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act,” the web history has it, “private horse roundups ended. In 1974, as an initial step toward management, the Forest Service inventoried the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse population for the first time.”
Gathers of 70 horses in 1979, and 500 in 2004, appear to have proceeded without much visible opposition.
Says another Modoc National Forest web page, “Starting in 1826 Euro-Americans entered the Modoc County area. The first were fur trappers and explorers for the Hudson’s Bay Company and the young United States. These were followed by emigrant settlers heading to Oregon along the Applegate Trail in 1846, and settlers and gold miners heading to California along the Lassen Trail in 1848-1849.
“In 1872-1873 the Modoc War took place in the vicinity of Tule Lake and the current Lava Beds National Monument,” just outside of the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory. “Here the Modoc leader, Captain Jack, and about 57 warriors, kept the US military at bay for several months in the rough lava country.”
Omitted, though, is any remembrance that as syndicated articles accessible through www.NewspaperArchive document, Modoc National Forest management began occasional gathers of wild horses deemed a nuisance as early as 1909, when 47 of an estimated 400 horses were corralled and put up for auction.
National Forest Service rangers and local ranchers reported that about half of the horses, ranging in age from two to “18 or 20 years old,” showed signs of having been previously domesticated, while the rest had probably never been handled.
A 1924 gather “arranged by officials of the Modoc National Forest,” according to Associated Press, collected “hundreds” of “surplus” horses, but “The highest price paid for any horse was $17. Thirty horses were sold for $1 each. One horse was sold for 25¢.”
Deer blamed for overgrazing
By 1951, however, mule deer rather than horses were blamed for overgrazing.
A month after a 15,000 acre forest fire swept across a 30-mile swath of the Modoc National Forest, then California governor and later U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren reluctantly authorized an antlerless deer hunt to keep deer in the Devil’s Garden from starving.
Said Warren, “It is difficult for me to sign any order of this kind, because I have been raised in the tradition of not shooting does, but if it is the scientific thing to do to protect our deer herds in regions that are overgrazed, then it must be done.”