by Wilson Walker

MODOC COUNTY (KPIX) — With the wild horse population in Modoc County growing far faster than the land can handle, federal officials have commenced a roundup that will send some animals off to an uncertain future.

Ranchers say the growing population is interfering with the area’s balance of life, but some activists argue the corralling is sure to send many of the older horses to slaughter.

With one helicopter and a small band of wranglers, the operation can collect as many as 65 wild horses in a single day.

“We have the best contractors in the country helping us,” said Laura Snell with UC Extension. “They know how to get those horses in as safely as possible, how to get them sorted, and they really care about the horses.”

The goal is remove 1,000 of these horses over the next 17 days.

“We take seriously the responsibility to care for these horses. That’s one of the main reasons we feel an action is needed to reduce the total population,” said Ken Sandusky with the U.S. Forest Service.

And for the U.S. Forest Service, this is all about numbers. This land is supposed to have from 200 to 400 horses. The population is now close to 4,000 and is growing at about 20 percent per year.

“I can show you miles of this fence where horses have broken through,” said Sandusky.

Those horses are competing for food with biggest business in Modoc County: the cows.

And with warmer winters the land itself is changing, the invasive annual grasses replacing the native perennials provide very little nutrition.

“You can see where the horses have bitten up this Medusa Grass, realized it’s not good food, and spit it back out all over here,” said Sandusky.

The land in the region is supporting more animals, but has less food.

So what happens to the horses?

The youngest, probably about 700, will go to a BLM holding facility where they will be put up for adoption.

But another 300 horses — roughly age ten and older — will be held in the new Devil’s Garden Corral until their fate is decided.

“Where they will be made available for adoption with limitation for 30 days,” said Sandusky. “And at the end of that time, they’ll be made available for sale without limitation, for one dollar a head.”

Keeping an eye on what is unfolding in Modoc County, a handful of wild horse advocates have argued against this action. Many are concerned at how many horses could be sold into slaughter.

“The numbers are high and something has to be done about it, but slaughter is not an option,” said Steve Page with the American Wild Horse Campaign. “They could be doing more active birth control. They could be removing smaller numbers where they are more likely to get adopted out.”

The police presence is a reminder that there are a lot of strong opinions on how the horse removal is being handled and whether it could have been prevented. But the feeling out here isn’t so much conflict, rather more of a solemn resignation that this chapter has arrived.

“I’m also a local person who was raised on an Indian Reservation, and so I relate to the wild horses,” said wild horse adoption volunteer Rosemary Nelson. “I feel like a wild Indian who’s been tamed somewhat.”

Nelson said she has slowly changed her mind.

“I’ve come more to the center and realized that slaughter may have to be part of the solution,” explained Nelson.

So while the gathering of the wild horses will continue for several weeks, the debate surrounding it will not end.

“There’s a right and a wrong way to manage these horses and this is the wrong way,” said Page.

In the meantime, the fate of the older horses remains up in the air.

“These ten year olds, we’re really working hard to find homes for them,” said Sandusky.

Comments (11)
  1. Sue Carter says:

    The Modoc Forest and the Devils Garden Wild Horse Territory combined is huge. It’s interesting that there is grass for cattle but not for horses. Guess what, tourists and locals would rather see a heard of Wild Horses than slobbering, defacating, farting cattle.

  2. Carla Bowers says:

    The wild horses & burros in the 10 Western states are only allowed to be on less than 5% of all of OUR public lands. On those public lands, including the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory in N. CA under Forest Service (FS) jurisdiction, the horses are only allowed ca. 18% of the available forage allocation, with the remaining 82% being allocated to livestock. There is no mention of the environmental damage that the livestock have created on Devil’s Garden where upwards of 4-6,000 cattle are allowed to graze that area for ca. 6 months of the year, Spring through Fall, the best grazing time of the year. The FS says that the Devil’s Garden range can support only 206-402 wild horses. That’s it? When 4-6K cattle are allowed out there even if it is for 6 months of the year? Since the wild horses are allocated so little land as their habitat in the West, it seems only right & fair that they be allocated at least 50% of the available forage allocation on those limited lands instead of 18% on average. The Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory is the last large FS herd in the nation & in California. Don’t’ they deserve better than this?

    The FS & the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were charged to manage the wild horses & burros on their respective public lands where the horses & burros were found by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act and yet, the FS has never had a line item budget to manage its Wild Horse Territories, ever. The Modoc FS has done nothing to manage the Devil’s Garden wild horses for 13 years, except for a small roundup that was done in the Fall of 2016 of just over 200 horses. So, instead of blaming the wild horses exclusively for any damage that might have occurred to the range under their oversight, perhaps the real blame should be directed elsewhere. And, a rethink needs to occur really quickly about setting up the magnificent older Devil’s Garden wild horses for disposal into the slaughter pipeline to Canada or Mexico. How can that possibly be done with these icons of our American history?

  3. lloouuiiee says:


    Devil’s Garden wild horses are the last sustainable herd in California, but they are in danger of being rounded up and sold to kill buyers. This short film shows the beautiful garden itself, as well as the devastating consequences of cattle grazing on our public lands.

  4. lloouuiiee says:

    What about the 23,000 acres that was returned to the Wild Horses?

    Federal court orders restoration of 23,000 acres for wild horses

    A federal appeals court has delivered a victory to wild horse enthusiasts, ordering the U.S. Forest Service to restore 23,000 acres of critical land as protected horse country in California — and showed judges taking an increasingly dim view of agencies’ decision-making.

    The government had said the land was added by “administrative error” in the 1980s, and tried to erase it from the boundaries of the protected wild horse territory, but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said decades of history of protection can’t be tossed out so easily.
    Judges ordered the Forest Service to go back and redo the decision, considering what impact the erasure would have on the horse population.

    “This is a precedent-setting victory making clear that federal land management agencies cannot exclude federally protected wild horses or other key uses of public lands without grappling with the implications of such actions on the environment,” said William S. Eubanks II, a lawyer who helped handle the case for a series of challengers.

    The horse advocates have been battling the government for years over wild horse roundups and protected lands, and the fight over the California area known as Devil’s Garden in the Modoc National Forest is the latest skirmish.

    Horses are protected by what Judge Patricia Millett, who wrote the court’s opinion, called a “Matryoshka doll of nesting federal statutes.”

    In the case of the California land, the 23,000 acres connected two other protected horse territories, creating one large swath. But the Forest Service said the land was added to a map in the 1980s by mistake and never should have been there.
    It said removing the land wasn’t a change in policy, but rather just cleaning up what the actual policy was supposed to have always been.

    The judges said decades of history and practice by the Forest Service can’t be swept away by calling the original decision a mistake.

  5. lloouuiiee says:

    AWARD – WILD HORSE GATHER, MODOC NATIONAL FOREST This contract was awarded to Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc with a potential award amount of $480,000. Period of Performance 09/14/2018 – 11/14/2018 (2 months)

  6. lloouuiiee says:

    Fire Brigade: Wild Horses And Their Value Proposition

    When I see wild horses locked-out of nature in holding corrals, I see a huge resource being wasted by ignorance. It’s akin to putting an entire fire department in jail during fire season! If they’re not wanted on cattle-ranch lands that’s fine, but there are places where there is no competition issues with cattle, where these horses can serve a greater good. Here’s what I mean…
    by Capt. William E. Simpson II

  7. lloouuiiee says:

    Fire Brigade: Wild Horses And Their Value Proposition

    Horses also add humus to the ground via their manure. This is done when the horses shelter under the trees and in other areas they frequent. I have a dozen photos that exhibit these important points. The results are envious, even to experienced park-maintenance personnel.
    County planners should take advantage of this cost-effective fire brigade, which is not unionized, doesn’t require health benefits, needs no breaks and never sues the county for HR issues. How can you beat that?

    The BLM holding corrals in Litchfield, CA and at all the other holding facilities throughout the the west currently have over 40,000 horses available for fire mitigation duty… let’s put them to work doing what they do best!

    by Capt. William E. Simpson II

  8. lloouuiiee says:


    Unlike Secretary Zinke, I grew up in a logging-ranching family in Southern Oregon in the 1960’s & 1970’s.

    Back then we had millions more deer (and a lot more elk) in our western forests, so even when we thinned and logged trees and opened-up the forest canopy (even clear-cutting), allowing more light to support the growth of more grass and brush, we had plenty of deer and elk to keep it all grazed-down to nominal conditions year round and kept in-check. And generally back then wildfires were infrequent, relatively small and short-lived.

    That is no longer the case: Our combined deer herd in California and Oregon is down 2.2 million animals that were previously abating 2.7-million tons of grass and brush (just in CA & OR). This is the same grass and brush that has kindled and is the primary fuel for the massive mega-fires and smoke plaguing California and Oregon (Mendocino Complex, Carr Fire, Sonoma Fire, Thomas Fire, Kalmiopsis Chetco Bar Fire, etc. etc.).

    And now the fatal and highly contagious Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is spreading to our relatively few remaining cervids (deer, elk, moose, etc.) fast, already in 27 states!

    AMERICAN WILD HORSES ARE THE ONLY LARGE BODIED HERBIVORE ON THE NORTH AMERICAN CONTINENT IMMUNE TO CWD and therefore do not spread the disease like deer, cattle and sheep, which could contract and also re-transmit the fatal disease from infected deer or each other. And with only 120,000 wild horses left in America today (includes all corralled horses) it seems utterly reckless to send any of them to slaughter as Sec. Zinke seems to also posit. This is especially contrary to good ecology given that to make up for the entire grazing capacity of the missing 2.2-million west-coast deer, we would need about 500,000 horses! As we now see, we need more CWD immune wild horses, not less.

    by Capt. William E. Simpson II

  9. ccdowner says:

    I was up there to Devil’s Garden in August and saw a lot more cattle than wild horses and those few bands of wild horses I did see were very nervous and took off, sign of possible persecution by people. I concur with some of the above commenters that wild horses are great reducers of vegetation that becomes major causation of catastrophic wildfires. So after this gutting of the herd and disruption of the wild horses natural and harmonious adaptation to this ecosystem, and given Global WArming, I would expect a lot more chance of catastrophic and ecologically damanging wildfires occuirring here.

  10. pferal says:

    Life for wild horses and those who defend them would be far lovelier if the Bureau of Land Management didn’t (1) cater to cattle ranchers, and their propaganda, and (2) we had a decent U.S. president who wasn’t wedded to plundering and commercially exploiting public lands for every nickle and dime it can produce for the meat industry. Wild horses are worth more alive than dead. To do your part, please shun the products of animals — especially sheep and cattle — as a blow back to ranchers treated like the BLM’s clients. Friends of Animals will soon announce an intervention.