Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories exploring the challenges of managing wild horses in the West and the cost of doing nothing.
SALT LAKE CITY — In 2018, the supervisor of northeastern California’s Modoc National Forest wrote an op-ed describing what he said was a desperate ecological holocaust that needed immediate attention.
Randy Moore was not making dire predictions over catastrophic wildfires, which that same year razed an entire town and killed a Utah firefighter sent to help.
The nemesis? The wild horse.
“We estimate the population of horses on Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory on the Modoc National Forest to total more than 10 times the environment’s carrying capacity of 206-402 horses,” he wrote. “The longer it takes to balance the level of horse populations, the greater the risk to the health of these lands and all that depend on them and the horses themselves.
“We are nearing the point where environmental degradation is irreversible, and we need to take immediate action.”
Critics called foul on what they said was an overblown and exaggerated problem and said the agency’s proposal for “gathers” and to offer the animals for “limited sale,” was merely a smokescreen on the path to slaughter.
What happens in slaughter? In a description by the the U.K. Guardian, a man describes how he finds the “sweet spot” just above the eyes on the forelock of a young mare. A bolt gun delivers the lethal blow at 700 mph, and within five hours, the Dartmoor pony is butchered and ready to be fed to carnivores at United Kingdom zoos.
That does not happen here, but many fear it could be reality, some day. Others question why we treat horses so differently when billions of other animals are slaughtered each year in the United States and millions of cats and dogs are euthanized.
The complaints over possible slaughter destination for the Modoc horses came even in light of the federal agency’s promise that the limited sale provisions required the animals would not be used for food consumption.
But Moore also warned that unless the public stepped up with limited sale purchases, the government’s only alternative was to pursue unlimited sale without restrictions. That could mean slaughter.
Research published by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association pointed out some butchers in Mexico, where some U.S. horses go, are known to use less than humane methods of slaughter.
“The most brutal and publicized technique, puntilla knife, includes a repeated stabbing of the animal’s neck until the spinal cord is severed — a process that often leaves the animal conscious and in unnecessary pain and suffering during the slaughter procedure.”
In the case of the Forest Service gather, the agency reported all the horses in 2018 placed into the Double Devil Corrals found homes, not a puntilla knife or steel bolt as destiny.
More gathers took place this year, when the BLM hired contractors to herd the animals by helicopter into a “trap” to be hopefully placed for adoption.
Timothy Pohlman, acting forest supervisor for the Modoc National Forest, said 436 wild horses were gathered in 2019 from the territory as of Oct. 4. About 1,802 horses remain in the forest.
The Forest Service said those horses gathered became available on Oct. 15.
A 2018 overview presented in Salt Lake City at a meeting of the National Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board detailed that 8,700 wild horses and burros live in 34 territories on more than 2 million acres of forest land in eight Western states.
Forest Service officials at the time said the population was 400% over what it deemed an “appropriate management level.”
In September, controversy over the Modoc horses led the California State Assembly to pass a law strengthening protections for wild and domestic horse populations. The governor signed the bill this month.
Military conflicts with the wild horses present an entirely different spectrum of problems, and they are not diminishing over time.
Wild horses occupied a bombing range in Nevada at Nellis Air Force Base, home of the stealth fighter. In Louisiana, a federal judge overruled attempts by special interest groups to stop the U.S. Army from rounding up what it termed as “trespass horses” posing a safety risk in training areas.
An Associated Press article with pictures provided by the Army shows horses grazing amid a combat infantry brigade’s training operation just yards away and a horse laying in the path of a convoy in 2017.
There was obvious conflict about who should occupy land, when and where. Who got there first?
Critics complained the horses at Louisiana’s Fort Polk may be descendants of those brought to the New World by Spanish colonists and then bred by Choctaw Indians. That makes them special, according to advocates, with unique genetic lines.
The judge ultimately ruled the group failed to proved that people whose families lost land when the Army base was created in 1941 would suffer irreparable harm if more horses are sent away, so the horses could be gathered.
At the request of the Department of Defense, about 46 horses from the Onaqui herd in Utah were removed from Dugway Proving Ground in September and will be sorted for adoption at the Axtell corral in Sanpete County.
Becki Bryant, chief of public affairs for Dugway Proving Ground, said the horses on the military installation pose a safety risk.
“Dugway is an Army installation that regularly hosts military training exercises and has moderate vehicle traffic. In the past three years, Dugway has had two vehicle/horse collisions,” she said. “Within its approximate 800,000 acres, (Dugway) has former testing ranges with unexploded ordinance that could detonate and seriously harm the horses.”
Wild horses and burros also roam on tribal lands across the United States. Some estimate their numbers to be greater than 100,000, and they don’t fall under the protections of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act.
Like the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, tribes have been the target of lawsuits spawned by claims of illegal roundups, inhumane treatment and horses captured for slaughter.
Earlier this year, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and other entities were sued over 400 horses that were rounded up in Palomino Valley in Nevada.
The suit by the American Wild Horse Preservation campaign said the tribe, and others they hired, illegally came onto land it didn’t control and drove the horses to the reservation. It asserted the tribe did not own the horses, but rather the state of Nevada did, or individual owners.
Because Native American tribes are a sovereign nation, there’s nothing to prevent them from gathering the horses and selling them for slaughter — an ugly reality despite their deep spiritual connection and reverence for the animal.
Like other areas in the West and across the Plains, the thousands of “tribal” horses are becoming a resource problem and news accounts detail roundups of horses and the Navajo Nation’s desire at one point to have them slaughtered in Roswell, New Mexico.
Like other societies, the Navajo have moved away from livestock being a key tenant of daily life.
“We have to take excess horses to slaughter because there is nobody to adopt these excess horses. There is no way around it. We are not taking care of our horses,” said Rudy R. Shebala, who holds a doctorate and is executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Natural Resources.
“The government has to take care of it and the government becomes the bad guy.”
The Navajo believe the sun gave the tribe the horse and it is a sacred, special animal with deep ties to the nation. However, Shebala said he remembers his grandmother telling him as far back as the early 1980s that the horses on the range weren’t spiritual, but “white man” horses.
Shebala wants to do a genetic study on the Navajo horses to determine which ones descend from Spanish explorers, and which ones are “Heinz 57.”
Last year, the tribe canceled a hunt in which members could pay $10 for a tag to “bag” one feral horse. The hunt was announced amid fears of drought, the burgeoning population and conditions on the range.
A protest, public pressure and rally led the Navajo Nation’s president to say the tribe would seek other alternatives.
Meanwhile, litigation is pending on the Nevada tribal gather, and as it is with the story of any other wild horse or burro, the fate of reservation horses remains a controversial question mark.