Horse News

Judge Urges Forest Service to Strike a Deal in Wild Horses Suit

by as published on

“You wanted to stop the sale of horses for human consumption.”

Horses roam the Devil’s Garden in Modoc National Forest. (Photo credit:

A federal judge urged the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday to work out a deal with animal rights activists who claim a plan to shrink the glut of wild horses in a Northern California forest will cause some horses to get slaughtered.

“I’m going to give you this opportunity to work something out before the hammer drops because once it drops, it drops,” U.S. District Judge James Donato said in court Thursday.

After umpiring 90 minutes of debate on whether a decision to sell horses rounded up in Modoc National Forest “without limitations” was a policy change that requires an explanation and environmental review, Donato seized upon what he called a “breakthrough moment.”

That moment came when Justice Department lawyer Rickey Turner said the U.S. Forest Service “will never knowingly sell a horse for slaughter for human consumption.”

Before capitalizing on the government’s pledge to urge settlement talks, Donato appeared to favor arguments that the decision to sell horses “without limits” was a dramatic change in policy that required notice and public comment.

“I do not see any evidence in the record that this is anything other than an abrupt and major shift in Forest Service policy,” Donato said.

William Eubanks II, a lawyer for plaintiff Animal Legal Defense Fund, implored the judge to barrel forward with ruling on the group’s motion for a preliminary injunction to block the unrestricted sale of horses, despite the government’s vow not to sell horses for human consumption.

Eubanks, of Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks in Fort Collins, Colorado, said the lawsuit is not just about selling horses for slaughter. It’s about the Forest Service’s dramatic shift in policy from selling horses with limitations to selling them without restrictions, he said.

“We’re challenging this major change in practice, and it’s not limited to slaughter,” Eubanks said.

Judge Donato disagreed.

“This complaint was about one thing only,” Donato said. “You wanted to stop the sale of horses for human consumption.”

Although no facilities slaughter horses in the United States, “kill buyers” can buy and ship horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico where horse meat is processed and sold overseas, according to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit.

Modoc County and a group of ranching interest groups, who previously sued the Forest Service for letting wild horses deplete their grazing resources, sought to intervene in the case. The ranchers’ suit against the government in the Eastern District of California is currently on hold as both sides try to reach a settlement.

Several ranchers from Modoc County traveled 350 miles south to attend Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco. One of those ranchers was Tee Wilson, who manages about 200 cows on private and public land in Modoc County.

Wilson said an overpopulation of horses poses major problems for ranchers. Because they have no predators, the horses grow “exponentially” in number and drain resources that cattle and other wild animals need to survive, he said.

Regarding the judge’s suggestion that both sides try to work out a deal, Wilson said he thinks it’s an important “step forward.”

“That’s what we wanted so we think it’s good the judge suggested that,” he said.

Christopher Barry, a staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the organization was “surprised” by the government’s vow not to sell horses for human consumption and hopeful about reaching an agreement.

“The ALDF looks forward to talking with the government about how to make sure horses aren’t illegally sold for slaughter,” Barry said.

Donato asked both sides to try working out the language for an agreement to resolve the case over the next 30 days, adding he could refer them to a magistrate judge for help if necessary.

According to the government, the Modoc National Forest already sold or gave up for adoption 180 wild horses rounded up last fall. Only 18 horses remain subject to potentially unrestricted sales at this time, but an operation to corral more horses is planned for later this year.

ALDF’s co-plaintiffs include American Wild Horse Campaign and Carla Bowers, a California resident who regularly visits Modoc National Forest where she “enjoys observing, photographing and studying the wild horses.”

The plaintiffs claim the alleged plan to sell wild horses for slaughter violates the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 along with federal forest management, environmental protection and administrative process laws.

Nestled in the northeastern corner of California, the 1.6-million-acre Modoc National Forest has for decades managed wild horses that roam free in its famed Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory.

More concrete help may be on the way for Modoc County’s wild horses: Also on Thursday, the California Assembly unanimously passed a bill that would require auction houses in the state to proactively remind potential buyers of domestic and wild horses that California law forbids the sale of horses for slaughter for human consumption.

9 replies »

  1. They aren’t addressing slaughter for consumption by non-humans? Plenty of history proves killing of public horses for pet food, and for zoo animals, for private profiteering.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Any deal needs to address the acreage that was taken from the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory and those horses that were removed need to be returned. Right now many are languishing in the BLM, Litchfield holding facility/concentration camp

    Federal court orders restoration of 23,000 acres for wild horses

    A federal appeals court has delivered a victory to wild horse enthusiasts, ordering the U.S. Forest Service to restore 23,000 acres of critical land as protected horse country in California — and showed judges taking an increasingly dim view of agencies’ decision-making.

    The government had said the land was added by “administrative error” in the 1980s, and tried to erase it from the boundaries of the protected wild horse territory, but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said decades of history of protection can’t be tossed out so easily.

    Judges ordered the Forest Service to go back and redo the decision, considering what impact the erasure would have on the horse population.

    “This is a precedent-setting victory making clear that federal land management agencies cannot exclude federally protected wild horses or other key uses of public lands without grappling with the implications of such actions on the environment,” said William S. Eubanks II, a lawyer who helped handle the case for a series of challengers.

    The horse advocates have been battling the government for years over wild horse roundups and protected lands, and the fight over the California area known as Devil’s Garden in the Modoc National Forest is the latest skirmish.

    Horses are protected by what Judge Patricia Millett, who wrote the court’s opinion, called a “Matryoshka doll of nesting federal statutes.”
    In the case of the California land, the 23,000 acres connected two other protected horse territories, creating one large swath. But the Forest Service said the land was added to a map in the 1980s by mistake and never should have been there.

    It said removing the land wasn’t a change in policy, but rather just cleaning up what the actual policy was supposed to have always been.
    The judges said decades of history and practice by the Forest Service can’t be swept away by calling the original decision a mistake.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Devil’s Garden wild horses are the last sustainable herd in California, but they are in danger of being rounded up and sold to kill buyers. This short film shows the beautiful garden itself, as well as the devastating consequences of cattle grazing on our public lands.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You and I as taxpayers, paid the local Modoc county farm bureau over a half million dollars ($501,396) to assist with the capture and disposal of OUR Devil’s Garden wild horses. This is in addition to the $654,737 that you and I paid the Cattoors to capture the wild horses.
    And not only did we as taxpayers pay for this illegal animal abuse all of which provides larger profits for welfare ranchers, but where oh where do you think the majority of these wild horses are NOW?
    On whose dinner plate?


  5. grandmagregg
    September 30, 2016

    Modoc County (Devils Garden Wild Horse Territory) “funny business” that is NOT funny.

    The local Farm Bureau and the Devil’s Garden Wild Horses “management” (excerpts):
    “The Modoc County Farm Bureau Takes Charge of Developing the Revised Management Plan
    The Forest Service subcontracted the development of the revised WHT plan to an entity representing local grazing interests. In August 2012 over one year after the Service issued the scoping letter the Modoc County Farm Bureau (“Farm Bureau”) entered into an agreement with the Service to develop the new management plan for the WHT.
    (“The entire plan development, not just the data collection, will now be funded through a new challenge cost share agreement between the Forest and the Modoc County Farm Bureau.”).
    Under this agreement, the Farm Bureau agreed to collect all of the data on wild horses, draft a monitoring report, prepare the draft EA and final EA, and oppose any appeal of the agency’s decision. AR04713. In return, the Service paid the Farm Bureau $203,000.
    The Farm Bureau was not a disinterested party. Its purpose “is to protect and promote agricultural interests in Modoc County,” including the grazing allotments that overlap with the WHT that are used to feed the cattle that compete with horses.
    The Farm Bureau “has many members whose livelihoods depend on grazing operations affected by the ever-expanding wild horse herd within or adjacent to” the WHT.
    Almost immediately after signing this agreement, the scope of the WHT plan revision was dramatically revised. On October 31, 2012, Susan Stokke, Field Manager for the Farm Bureau’s project, informed the Forest Service that the Farm Bureau wanted to change the WHT boundaries.
    Ms. Stokke is the wife of Sean Curtis, the Director of the Farm Bureau.” (

    Note: Ms. Stokke is the past head of BLM Nevada Wild Horse & Burro Lead
    Mr. Curtis also is the Modoc County employee centrally involved in the development of the new WHT management plan, as confirmed by the declaration he submitted in support of the ranching intervenors in this case. In addition and specifically, the funds from Title III being used to pay the salary of Sean Curtis, then County Resource Analyst and head of the Land Use Committee, were being used wrongfully and had been misappropriated. Sean Curtis and the Land Use Committee itself at the time was under heavy fire by local Citizens regarding, what they deemed, as wrongful conduct, including the use of Federal Funds to pay L.U.C. President Curtis which is illegal under Title 19 law as well as misuse of Title III funds. Other issues with L.U.C. included the Title 19 mandates that were ignored, such as the committee elect a chairperson, vice-chair and secretary from within its membership and divide itself into various committees (such as livestock, wildlife, water, timber, farming etc). This was not done, in fact, Mr. Curtis presented the committee with Modoc County Land Use Committee Standard Operating Protocol he had authored. In it, Mr. Curtis chaired the meetings, developed the agenda, wrote the minutes, appointed sub-committees, appointed an executive review committee, appointed advisory members, and most troubling was the exclusive contact and coordinator with agencies that contributed to his salary. Essentially Mr. Curtis (a Federally funded County Employee), had set himself up as King over a committee that by law to be comprised of registered voters of Modoc County not actively employed by any federal and/or state resource management agency.


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