Sabelow Series in the Sacramento Bee II: In Devil’s Garden, California’s majestic wild horses trapped in no-win fight for survival

Ken Sandusky, a spokesman for the Modoc National Forest, looks at a headwaters spring where the native grasses were trampled and eaten by horses on Sept. 11, 2020. “It should be a little oasis. And it’s gone,” he said. Ryan Sabalow [email protected]

I agree with Emily, this is a pretty even-handed look at the issue in a specific place.

Here are a couple of questions:
1. What’s best for the horses? Who decides that with what values? Who decides whether sterilization is inhumane?

2. Sabelow’s observations on a specific site vs. Koncel’s general statement. In a contentious disagreement like this, is there a place where claims and evidence can be discussed in an open forum (this reminds me of the idea of the conflict resolution technique of joint fact-finding)? But will joint agreement on facts help when values themselves are so different?

3. Degrees of “wildness”

Out here, the ranchers who have a permit to graze cattle are required to build barbed wire fences to keep their livestock out of some of the protected springs that bubble up from the lava rock. These permanent riparian areas are critical to the long-term survival of native wildlife in this high desert.

The fences, which deer and elk are able to leap, must have a smooth wire along the bottom to allow local pronghorn antelope, which can’t jump very well, and smaller animals to crawl under.

The fences can be no match for the horses. At one site I visited, the horses pushed down the barbed wire, shearing many of the metal T-posts off at the base. The lush native grasses around the protected spring were so mowed from horses’ teeth it looked like a putting green covered in piles of horse droppings.

“This site should be surrounded by vegetation,” said Sandusky, the Modoc National Forest’s public affairs officer. “It should be a little oasis. And it’s gone.”

The horse hooves had turned much of the soft soil around its rock-armored headwaters into a pockmarked bog. Sandusky told me in other parts of the forest, the horses had trampled less-rocky springs so much that they had actually stopped flowing.

She’s not wrong about the disproportionate numbers. Each year, some 26,537 cattle graze on the Modoc National Forest under 82 federal permits issued to ranchers.

The Forest Service defends the practice, saying it’s obligated under federal law to allow grazing. Cattle ranchers are required under the terms of their permits to leave a percentage of the forage, and they’re required to keep their cattle from grazing around protected springs.

On the Modoc, the cattle are allowed on these lands only for three to five months.

“You take them to another range or you take them off the range altogether,” Sandusky said. “With horses … they’re out here 365. There’s no way to manage the overuse of the resource.”

Koncel, though, was having none of that. She insisted that cows — not horses — are responsible for the majority of the damage to riparian areas.

“Wild horses don’t do that,” she said. “They drink, and they move out.”

At the spring I visited, there were only a few cowpies scattered among the piles of horse apples, and it was clear the horses had been in there for months.

Koncel’s solution to addressing the overgrazing issue: reduce the numbers of cattle on the range, and use a type of birth control called PZP, shot from a dart, to keep the horses’ numbers in check.

While it’s shown promise in some areas, it would be a major challenge to dart mares multiple times across hundreds of square miles of rugged terrain in Devil’s Garden.

A more practical solution might be to round up mares once and surgically sterilize them — a plan the Trump administration proposed on BLM lands — but horse advocates believe that is inhumane. This month, they sued the feds over it.

Degrees of Wildness (care versus Nature)

But what about the mountain lion preying on those foals out here?

“That bothers me. But I also think if we think of wild horses as being wildlife, then we have to accept that.”

What about a bad winter causing horses out here to starve or their watering holes to freeze?

“There are areas that have been suffering from drought, and there have been emergency gathers, but one then has to step back and say, ‘OK, truly, instead of taking the horses off, why not give them supplemental hay or water and keep them on?’ ”

11 thoughts on “Sabelow Series in the Sacramento Bee II: In Devil’s Garden, California’s majestic wild horses trapped in no-win fight for survival”

  1. I copied Steve Wilent’s comment from the “new ideas” tab below..

    A 2017 “Outdoor Idaho” episode from Idaho Public Broadcasting, “Wild Horses,” offers a look at the problem and some of the folks who are working on it.

    “Mustangs are a symbol of our western tradition; yet they are often reviled, as they compete for resources with livestock and wildlife in an ever changing environment impacted by range fire and drought. Thousands end up in holding corrals far from home, never to return. Outdoor Idaho takes a look at what is happening to the mustang herds in Idaho and beyond. “

  2. Perhaps one way to address this particular problem would be to form a collaborative that wouldn’t look at solutions, but instead would attempt to define what the land should look like and why that look is desirable. From that definition a management solution might emerge.

    • Greg, I think that’s the idea of “desired conditions” found in forest planning. I worked on some public meetings where people were asked to talk about those..

      IMHO we ran into a couple of problems.. first, the specificity.. somewhere between “happy healthy forests and sustainable recreation opportunities” and “acres of forest in various age classes based on HRV”.. there’s a lot of potential discussion territory. I haven’t seen a structure for the “what land should look like” discussion that worked- so far as being comprehensible to everyone-but there could be examples out there somewhere. It’s certainly been tried in enough forest plans.

      Second, some people just want to talk about specific concrete things (e.g. separating snowmobilers from other winter users) and don’t want to talk about generalities about the land. To them words don’t really have meaning other than actions allowed or disallowed.

      • Instead of asking people what they want, why not ask them to describe what they don’t want? That is an easier path for people to get their heads around “desired conditions” – they end up describing what they want by process of elimination. However, once some people see the path of where that discussion is going, they may sabotage the discussion based on values positioning.

        The wild horse issue is perhaps one where parties in conflict rarely advance towards any common ground, let alone compromise. The emotional investment in the values people express is amazingly high, hence the sustained conflict.

  3. “The Forest Service defends the practice, saying it’s obligated under federal law to allow grazing.” If they really said this, they should be shamed for lying to the public. (And there are plenty of places where grazing allotments have been eliminated.)

    Maybe darting horses with contraceptives could become a popular sport and revenue source.

    • Really, Jon, “lying”? When non FS people make simple statements (or are quoted) about complex things, do we accuse them of “lying”? I think perhaps this is a time/scale thing… if grazing is permitted under existing authorizations, they have a legal right to graze. The allotment could be eliminated when it comes up for renewal. I’m not sure he was addressing the question “could someone in the Administration make unavailable all federal land to grazing under existing statutes?” and successfully defend it in court.. which is an interesting question.

      Whether that would be a good idea or not is a separate question.

      • I agree we don’t know what question was being asked, but in this context I think it was whether, in this location where wild horses are found, it is legally possible to eliminate livestock grazing. An ignorant person who says no wouldn’t be lying, but an agency responsible for knowing its authorities would be putting out misinformation with this answer – aka, “lying.” (If there is some temporary barrier to doing that, they should disclose it.)

        • Some people might think that if the entire agency were to eliminate grazing would be counter to MUSYA.. “It is the policy of the Congress that the National Forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes.”

    • BTW..Here’s what’s in the appropriations bill…

      “SEC. 417. The terms and conditions of section 325 of Public Law 108–108 (117 Stat. 1307), regarding grazing permits issued by the Forest Service on any lands not subject to administration
      under section 402 of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (43 U.S.C. 1752), shall remain in effect for fiscal year 2021.”

  4. There is far too much ‘non-science’ (nonsense) being spewed as fact…. none of the people at the BLM, USFS or livestock profiteers and their surrogates, who demonize native species American wild horses can cite any genuine peer-reviewed science, or empirical data that forms a basis of consensus that wild horses are anything but good for the ecosystems where they live, and have evolved over the past 55-million years.

    Here is some peer-reviewed science that needs to be brought into the foreground:

    Published Scientific References (Supporting wild horses as keystone native species in America, and the implementation of Wild Horse Fire Brigade)

    [1] MANAGED TO EXTINCTION? A 40th Anniversary Legal Forum assessing the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act; TRANSCRIPT: ROSS MACPHEE, Curator, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH):

    [2] Wild Horses as Native North American Wildlife:

    [3] The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California recognized wild horses as native species, explaining that BLM “establishes Appropriate Management Levels (“AMLs”) for populations of native species – including wild horses, burros, and other wildlife – and introduced animals, such as livestock.” In Defense of Animals, et al. v. U.S. Dept. Interior, et al., No. 12-17804, *6 (9th Cir. May 12, 2014). On Sep 28, 2011 (See Craters AR at 16698. Memorandum Decision & Order) The court addresses “sensitive” species pursuant to BLM’s 2001 Special Status Species Policy. This Policy requires that “sensitive” species be afforded, at a minimum, the same protections as candidate species for listing under the ESA. It called on BLM managers to “obtain and use the best available information deemed necessary to evaluate the status of special status species in areas affected by land use plans . . . .” See Policy at § 6840.22A. Under the Policy, those land use plans “shall be sufficiently detailed to identify and resolve significant land use conflicts with special status species without deferring conflict resolution to implementation-level planning.”

    [4] Land Held Hostage: A History of Livestock and Politics; Thomas L. Fleischner, Ph.D. Citation by: Professor Thomas L. Fleischner, Ph.D: “The most severe vegetation changes of the last 5400 years occurred during the past 200 years. The nature and timing of these changes suggest that they were primarily caused by 19th-century open-land sheep and cattle ranching.”

    [5] Foods of wild horses, deer, and cattle in the Douglas Mountain area, Colorado. Hansen, R. M., Clark, R. C., & Lawhorn, W. (1977). Journal of Range Management, 30(2), 116-118.

    [6] Evolution of wild horses and cattle and the effect on range damage;

    [7] Federal Forestlands In Oregon:

    [8] Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores: “By altering the quantity and distribution of fuel supplies, large herbivores can shape the frequency, intensity, and spatial distribution of fires across a landscape”. William J. Ripple1, Thomas M. Newsome1,2,Christopher Wolf1, Rodolfo Dirzo3, Kristoffer T. Everatt4, Mauro Galetti5, Matt W. Hayward4,6, Graham I. H. Kerley4, Taal Levi7, Peter A. Lindsey8,9, David W. Macdonald10, Yadvinder Malhi11, Luke E. Painter7, Christopher J. Sandom10, John Terborgh12 and Blaire Van Valkenburgh13

    [9] Rewilding: Jozef Keulartz. “The removal of large herbivores has adverse effects on landscape structure and ecosystem functioning. In wetter ecosystems, the loss of large herbivores is associated with an increased abundance of woody plants and the development of a closed-canopy vegetation. In drier ecosystems, reductions of large grazers can lead to a high grass biomass, and thus, to an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Together, with the loss of a prey base for large carnivores, these changes in vegetation structures and fire regimes may trigger cascades of extinctions (Bakker et al., 2016; Estes et al., 2011; Hopcraft, Olff, & Sinclair, 2009; Malhi et al., 2016).”

    [10] Wild horses: Are they being managed to extinction? William E. Simpson II;

    [11] Cattle Grazing Effects on Macroinvertebrates in an Oregon Mountain Stream; Rangeland Ecology and Management 60(3), 293-303, (1 May 2007) James D. McIver and Michael L. McInnis;;2

    [12] Dr. Cassandra Nunez – PhD: Published research:

    [13] Influence of ruminant digestive processes on germination of ingested seeds;

    [14] Ruminant Digestion:

    [15] Public lands bear the ecological brunt of livestock grazing:

    [16] Wild Horse Fire Brigade – Rebalancing North American Ecosystems:

    [17] Yes world, there were horses in Native culture before the settlers came

    [18] Project to Reform Public Land Grazing in Northern California

    [19] Natural Wildfire Abatement And Forest Protection Plan


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