Running the show: Wild horses on California fed lands need to be adopted
For Tri-State Livestock News
The current wild horse gather on The Devil’s Garden Plateau in Modoc County, California may be setting the stage for the future of public lands use in the West.
According to Laura Snell, Modoc County Farm Advisor, over half of the gathered horses must be adopted or purchased to make a gather in 2019 possible due to space available in government corrals.
Regardless of how many horses the USFS can gather off The Garden in 30 days, if they remain on the government feed bill in corrals there won’t be much hope for another round-up.
While tempers, misinformation, and emotions run rampant due to the gather on “The Garden,” its purpose is backed strictly by science and the need to manage resources appropriately.
“This round-up is a result of the prescribed 2013 Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory Management Plan that addressed the impacts on aquatic resources, wildlife, grazing, and traditional cultural practices,” said Snell, an active leader in the gather since it’s first stages.
The current population of wild horses on The Garden has reached over 4,000 head which is well above the 200-400 deemed “appropriate” for the resources available. Due to this over population, the United States Forest Service (USFS) in Modoc launched their gather of Devil’s Garden in October 2018.
“We’re set to roundup 1,000 wild horses from the Modoc National Forest.” said Snell, “The gather began October 10 and will last approximately 30 days.” A thousand head seems like a small number compared to the 4,000 horses living on The Garden, and Snell confirms that this gather will only equate to the amount of foals born into the herd in 2018.
With two grazing permits on The Garden being deemed complete non-use for cattle due to the horses and up to a dozen more allotments being threatened, the gather not only sets the precedent for how the government handles wild horses, but the future of cattle grazing on public lands falls in the mix.
As the Devil’s Garden wild horse population is growing at 20-25 percent annually, the 2018 gather will barely scratch the surface. “Next year’s gather is extremely important for actually managing the horses,” said Laura Snell. Next year is no guarantee though, and there is an uphill battle to get there.
According to Snell, over half of the gathered horses must be adopted or purchased to make a gather in 2019 possible due to space available in government corrals. Regardless of how many horses the USFS can gather off The Garden in 30 days, if they remain on the government feed bill in corrals there won’t be much hope for another round-up.
Spending her days out in the field at the new Double Devil Corrals, Snell is haunted by the fact that it may all be in vain if she and her colleagues can’t find homes for these horses. “Several trainers have already stepped up committing to some of these horses,” she said. All horses from the gather are available for adoption for $125 per head and most are available for purchase for only $25 per head. Snell, an active member of the Society for Range Management, has filled out an application to take home two of the horses in hopes of being part of the solution.
“These are arguably the best wild horses currently being gathered. They are larger in size, very sure footed living out on the Devil’s Garden and are often commented on as extremely trainable by trainers across the country,” she noted.
Aside from potentially purchasing some of the horses, Modoc County ranchers have decided to imitate litigation-happy advocates by filing their own lawsuit. Jess Dancer, ranch manager for the MS Ranch and current president of the Modoc County Cattlemen, and over ten other ranchers filed a lawsuit against the United States Forest Service in an attempt to gain back their grazing rights.
Known as the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Preservation Group, ranchers involved in the lawsuit are not seeking restitution or any profit.“We’re just trying to get them to abide by the AMLs of the wild horses so we can get back on our permits,” said Dancer.
Dancer’s permit, Immigrant Springs, is one of two permits deemed total non-use to cattle grazing in 2018. “I came to Modoc in 2011 and there were a few wild horses on our permit,” he said. Over the years however, Dancer and the MS Ranch have seen their allotted AUMs taken away with their allotment down to fifty percent use in 2017 and then zero use in 2018. “My permit is only supposed to have sixty horses on it, and there are over 1,000 there now,” he said.
The MS Ranch alone has cut their cattle numbers nearly in half as a result of the wild horses. “We’ve liquidated quite a bit,” said Dancer, “we stayed in house with what cattle we’ve got, but that is still more money than running on our permit.” As ranchers have no certainty as to when grazing will ever be restored to the Devil’s Garden Plateau, the future of their herds is ominous.
With roughly 2,500 wild horses adopted annually through the BLM each year, the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Preservation Group and Laura Snell’s colleagues have an rigorous journey ahead of them to get fifty percent of the Devil’s Garden gathered horses placed before spring 2019. “It’s a heated discussion in the West,” said Dancer, “and a lot of it depends on this gather.”