Wild horses are herded up Sept. 10, 2020, in Devil’s Garden in the Modoc National Forest.  Daniel Kim/Sacramento Bee (used with permission)
Wild horses are herded up Sept. 10, 2020, in Devil’s Garden in the Modoc National Forest.  (Daniel Kim/Sacramento Bee (used with permission))

Wild Horses, Part of Romantic West, Are Causing Havoc in Northeast California

Wild Horses, Part of Romantic West, Are Causing Havoc in Northeast California

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In the northeast corner of California, feral horses roam in an area of the Modoc National Forest known as Devil's Garden. The high desert plateau in the northeastern corner of the state is filled with juniper trees, sage brush, and not quite enough grass for all the grazing animals that live there. A fight over how to manage the horses shifted recently when Congress funded a plan to reduce herds on federal lands. KQED's Brian Watt recently spoke with Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Sabalow, who covered the Devil's Garden horses in his series, "Nothing Wild."

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did these horses come to be living in the wild?

Ryan Sabalow: Some of these horses in the West can trace their ancestry back to the Spanish settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The difference with the Devil's Garden herd is these horses are much more newcomers. They've been around since about the Modoc War, which was in the 1800s.

The Devil's Garden herd is unique in that it's managed by the U.S. Forest Service instead of the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM manages about 100,000 wild horses on millions of acres.

The issue is that wild horses are not a native species. The federal government is trying to figure out a way to reduce their numbers to try to benefit all these other animals that are out there, while still allowing cattle ranchers to make a living.

These horses are wrapped up in a romantic narrative about freedom in the Old West. So what's at stake here?

There's a deep, deep, emotional connection to wild horses that advocates have. And there's a really kind of troubling history of how horses were managed, particularly on these BLM lands, for the first half of the last century.

A herd of wild horses are corralled into a holding pen in Devil’s Garden in the Modoc National Forest on Sept. 10, 2020. (Daniel Kim/Sacramento Bee (used with permission))

They were basically rounded up, sent to slaughter for dog food and glue. They were shipped overseas to fight in World War I. They were treated like livestock.

After World War II, there was a fundamental shift in how we viewed wild horses. The horse population in the West was going down, and that coincided with the romance of the American West that was basically all over TV and Hollywood.

Then, in 1971, President Richard Nixon passed a law that protected wild horses, basically saying they are a fundamental part of the American West and they deserve to be protected just like our wildlife. What that basically set in stone was a policy where the federal government can't kill these animals, and it has created all kinds of headaches for land managers ever since, because horses are prolific breeders. And in many of these areas, they're breeding to the point where they're overwhelming the ecosystems they're in.

What effect are the horses having on the landscape?

The area is struggling with a lot of ecological stressors right now. The entire base of the food chain is filled with these invasive grasses that have come in over the last few decades; you have juniper trees growing everywhere, and in places where they shouldn't be. On top of this, you have cattle and wild horses being raised on these lands.

Native species are suffering. Sage-grouse numbers have declined precipitously. There used to be like 14,000 of these animals in the Devil's Garden. They're now down to like five; just a couple of years ago they counted five grouse in the middle of their breeding area. The local deer herd numbers are in decline. There used to be tens of thousands in what's known as the Interstate Deer Herd. Just a couple of years ago they counted under 5,000.

The horse advocates would say, well, if we just removed some of the cows from these areas, the horses would have ample feed. The government says: We don't allow the cattle to be out there all year long. They're only allowed to forage for a certain amount of time per year, so the ranchers have to make sure they leave a certain amount of feed available for the wildlife.

But the horses are out there year-round. I actually went out to one of these protected springs in the Devil's Garden, which is a really formidable place — it's called Devil's Garden for a reason. It's a high desert, extremely cold, extremely hot, depending on time of year. Lava rocks everywhere.

What you get are these critically important springs that bubble up from the lava rock. I went to one of these places where cattle ranchers are supposed to put a fence around the spring. And the horses, because they need to get to the green grass and that fresh clean water that bubbles up, they just tear the fence right down.

“It should be a little oasis. And it’s gone." — Ken Sandusky, a spokesman for the Modoc National Forest, at a headwaters spring where the native grasses were trampled and eaten by horses on Sept. 11, 2020. (Ryan Sabalow/Sacramento Bee (used with permission))

This place should have been this lush meadow, fenced off from cows, that the deer and the antelope could get into. And it was mowed down; basically it looked like a putting-green covered in horse apples ... just completely stomped down.

The folks at the Forest Service tell me there are other springs that the horses had got in and trampled to the point that the water stopped flowing. If you're a native animal that needs that to survive, that's bad news; that's your feed that they're eating. That's the water you need to survive.

Wild horses are also very aggressive. There have been studies that show they'll chase away deer and elk and other animals that come in and try to get into these springs.

The omnibus bill Congress approved last month includes money for the Bureau of Land Management to cut herd sizes. How does that gets accomplished?

The current method that's used just about everywhere is to pay these helicopter cowboys. They set up temporary holding corrals, and they have helicopters that come out, and they try to push as many horses into these corrals as possible to try to reduce the numbers.

The government then puts the horses up for adoption, but not all are adoptable. Unadopted animals have ended up in permanent BLM corrals or private wild horse sanctuaries across the country. There's been some talk of using either surgical sterilization or birth control, but right now the primary focus is helicopters.

Does that get us closer to any solution to the problem?

Back in 2016, they had about 2,200 horses in the Devil's Garden herd. They've done three years of these roundups, and they figure they've got about 1,000 adult horses out there now. That's still twice what the federal government says the land can sustainably support.

Those numbers could also be undercounts, because it's really hard to keep track. You've got these animals living out in these vast places. There are a lot of juniper trees and little canyons and things that the horses can get lost in when counters are trying to count them.

Horse advocates say, however, those numbers are inflated and that the government is doing these roundups to appease the cattle ranchers; there's that side of things as well.

In the series, you wrote that disagreements over managing wildlife in this region are emblematic of larger divisions within the country. What do you mean by that?

I wanted to get into this idea that you can't find a piece of California, really, that hasn't been fundamentally altered by humans since the Gold Rush. Yet there's this huge romantic notion that if we just leave these places alone, they'll re-wild themselves.

And I argue that this northeastern corner of California is so fundamentally changed, that's basically impossible. And it's not fair to cut out the small rural communities that rely on these places for their livelihoods. How do we split the difference to try to save what's left?

As part of that, I explore this concept of saving things to death. Every environmental issue with any sort of controversy is [the subject of lawsuits] by the varying factions, sometimes multiple times. These varying groups oftentimes have noble intentions. But it leads to very little innovation by public land managers to act quickly to save species and habitats, because basically, agencies right now are constantly in lawsuit-prevention mode. On the wild horse issue, the ranchers have sued the federal government over too many horses, and the horse advocates have sued over the horse management plan that's tied to these roundups, because they feel it's inhumane to remove these animals like the federal government's doing.

So you've got these intense ideals just bashing each other constantly.

A male greater sage-grouse struts to attract females at a lek (breeding or dancing ground) near Bodie, California. Once in the 19th century, sage-grouse were so numerous that hungry European settlers ate them to survive as they expanded across the American West. (Jeannie Stafford/USFWS)

The series also explores how every once in a while people of goodwill will come together and come up with an environmental compromise that tries to save species and habitats while allowing people to continue to make a living on these habitats, and then hardliners come in and kill it.

Two of my stories mention these compromises around trying to save the sage-grouse in this area, as well as another big compromise that tried to share water, allowing the Klamath River to save salmon, farmers to farm, fishermen to fish. What has ended up happening is hard-liners have come in and basically spiked those agreements through the courts, or just through inaction.

A scientist I spoke to said one of the challenges around this issue in Devil's Garden is this romantic notion about wild horses: They are so tied to our notions of what the West is. But he said the problem with that is that you often lose the ecological piece of what's going on. One of the things he wishes is that instead of giving every little kid a My Little Pony, we give them a My Little Sage-grouse.

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