Wild horses are an iconic part of America’s Western landscape, just like the cowboys who round them up. It's a scene on display this month in the remote and rugged landscape of Modoc County’s Devil’s Garden Plateau, in far northeastern California.
To understand the lawsuit, it helps to understand why the U.S. Forest Service is conducting the roundup in the first place.
Biologists say the wild horse territory on the plateau can sustain 400 wild horses, but the population has exploded to 4,000. And that's causing problems for the horses — if faced with a harsh winter, they may starve. Also of concern are other wildlife grazers, like the indigenous pronghorn antelope. And finally, the health of creeks and streams is heavily impacted by these robust, unmanaged wild horse herds. So, for the overall health of the horses, the wildlife and the environment, there is general consensus that reducing the number of horses is essential. And better management of them is needed going forward.
"We have 10 to 20 times the amount of horses on this land that the land can sustain while also sustaining the wildlife, fish and other aquatic resources ... and the economic driver of this county, which is cattle grazing," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ken Sandusky.
What's not agreed on is what to do with the wild horses brought in from the roundup.
That's the issue behind the lawsuit, which asks a judge to issue an injunction to block the sale of wild horses gathered in the roundup, due to what plaintiffs claim is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Under the current plan for captured horses, those over 10 years old become available for adoption or sale for 60 days — with limitations about not selling them for slaughter. After that, the remaining horses can be sold without limitations, raising concerns among advocates that they will be bought by the truckload and hauled to out-of-state slaughterhouses for meat.
Steve Paige, with the American Wild Horse Campaign, went to observe a recent roundup. He says he understands the need to better manage the horses, but he doesn't agree with the approach the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are taking.
“There is a right way and a wrong way, and this is the wrong way," he said. "These horses are getting no protection. They’re getting rounded up. They have the chance of getting sent to slaughter, which is illegal in this state. The system they have now is just gonna continue on and they’re gonna continue doing the same roundups and the same thing."
Paige explained that his organization had offered to dart the wild mares with birth control injections. But the Forest Service's Sandusky said that birth control, while a good option, doesn't address the current overpopulation problem.
Finally, Paige pointed out in frustration that there always seems to be enough grass and water for more cattle, the major economic engine in Modoc County.
Rancher Kathy DeForest doesn't dispute that her cattle impact the environment. But she said the cattle are fundamentally different from the wild horses.
"On the Modoc National Forest where these horses are, the cattle are strictly managed. They are only out on the range for a specified period of time that is agreed to by the Forest Service and the ranchers. They are moved from one area to another, so the grasses get a rest. But the horses are staying there, so the grasses and the vegetation never does get a rest," DeForest said.
Don't get her wrong, DeForest loves the horses. But, she said, poor management has allowed their numbers to get so out of control that they are now degrading the environment.
The word on everyone's lips -- biologists, cowboys, Forest Service employees and ranchers -- was management. The short-term problem may be settled in the courts, but the longer-term problem of wild horse management remains a vexing one for the Bureau of Land Management.