A controversial roundup of 1,000 wild horses, some of which could wind up being sold for slaughter, began Wednesday in Modoc National Forest despite an eleventh-hour appeal from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
The U.S. Forest Service, which is overseeing the roundup, said the horse population needs to be reduced to “sustain the natural ecological balance” of the forest’s Devils Garden Plateau Territory.
About 3,900 horses currently roam the territory in a space designated for no more than 402, according to a Forest Service planning document, and area ranchers say the horse population is interfering with grazing activities.
Although the Forest Service has been planning the roundup for years, the Modoc roundup is the first “horse gather” on public lands in 13 years, and media attention intensified in recent days.
Forest Service spokesman Ken Sandusky said the horses were being herded by a helicopter hovering overhead. The helicopter directed the horses “at a comfortable pace” into a corral. Eventually they’ll be taken to a contractor’s holding facility in the Modoc forest, where they’ll be treated and evaluated. The roundup is supposed to take a month.
About 60 horses had been captured in the first few hours, said agency spokeswoman Sally Carter.
Sandusky said all of the horses will be put up for adoption, although the animals that are at least 10 years old will be put up for sale “without limitation” for $1 apiece if they aren’t adopted within 30 days.
That’s where the protests come in. The American Wild Horse Campaign, a group based in Davis, said it fears the animals that aren’t adopted will be “sold to slaughter plants to produce horse meat for foreign consumption.”
“While we understand the Forest Service’s desire to reduce the Devils Garden wild horse population, the agency must do so in a humane and socially acceptable manner,” the group added.
Suzanne Roy, the group’s executive director, said in an interview Wednesday that several animal rights groups plan to ask California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to intervene. She said California law forbids the slaughter of wild horses.
She said the horses are protected from slaughter by the federal Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, but that law only covers the Interior Department, not the Forest Service, which is under the Department of Agriculture. In previous administrations, the Forest Service followed the law anyway, but that’s changed under the Trump administration, she said.
“It’s basically a legal technicality,” she said.
Feinstein sent the Forest Service’s acting chief, Vicki Christiansen, a letter late Tuesday asking for a halt to “any sales of wild horses” unless the agency can “certify that no horses that are sold will be transferred to third-party buyers who may end up slaughtering the animals for commercial use.”
Ranchers, meanwhile, said the roundup is badly needed to control a horse population that has wrecked livestock grazing in the national forest.
The horses “have eaten the grass to the point that there’s nothing growing,” said Ned Coe, a Modoc County rancher, county supervisor and California Farm Bureau Federation field representative. He said ranchers had to remove all their cattle from the area this year because of the outsized horse population.
Asked about the protests, Coe said it’s “extremely inhumane to maintain ... 10 times the maximum appropriate number of animals on the range. The horses are running out of feed and running out of water.”
He said the roundup will leave the area still grossly overpopulated. “We’re not gaining any ground here,” he said.