Wild Horses in Northern California 

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There are many wild horses and donkeys living on protected land in the United States. Usually, there is not much controversy surrounding these animals, however there is a big debate and legal battle that is happening right now over the wild horses in Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory in Northern California. 932 horses were gathered from the land and some have already been adopted, where others are still waiting to be adopted (‘Modoc National Forest – News & Events’). Horses being captured and removed from public land is not in itself a controversy, how and to whom the Forest Service is going to sell the horses to is. There are currently no regulations on who the Forest Service can sell the horses to or if they can euthanize them. There is a big worry that since there is no restriction, the horses will be sold to slaughter.

That is what makes this controversy so important as it will set a precedent on how the Forest Service should handle population control of these wild horses and donkeys in the future. The Forest Service and other stakeholders, such as the activist groups and the California Senator, all bring their own ideologies and viewpoints to this controversy making it a challenging situation as there are many conflicting ideas on how to handle the horses. From looking at this issue from the regime framework and from the history of how population growth of wild animals in protected lands has been managed, the Forest Service should have restrictions in place on who they can sell the horses too as they should do their best to protect the wellbeing of the animals.

The land that this controversy is happening on is the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory. It is in Northern California and is 300,000 acres of Forest Service land and 8,300 acres of Bureau of Land Management land and is administered by the Modoc National Forest, the ecosystem that dominates this area is high desert plateau sagebrush-steppe ecosystem (‘Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory’). This area is protected land for wild horses and donkeys and they have been living there for over 100 years. There are about 4,000 wild horses within that area, though the sustainable amount is around 400 (Woodhouse, 2018). There are no natural predators to these animals in this landscape, which is how the population was able to boom. The population has gotten so big that the ecosystem cannot support it anymore and is starting to suffer. This is what stirred the Forest Service to start rounding up the horses as they want to have a healthy ecosystem.

Usually, the Bureau of Land Management is the one to handle the public lands that are wild horse territories, however, the Forest Service has reign on this piece of land. There is a law already in place, Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, that gives limitations on how the Bureau of Land Management can handle the population control of the horses, prohibiting euthanasia and restricting where they can sell the horses too (Streater, 2018). The law is very clear and concise on how situations like these should be held if it was under the Bureau of Land Management. However, since these two agencies are under different departments, the law does not apply to the United States Forest Service. They have no restrictions on what they can do with all the horses.

There is not clear policy for this specific situation and case, though the policy for the Bureau of Land Management seems to give a clear pathway of how policy should be set up for the Forest Service as well. There is contention between the two departments over whether this policy is an efficient way to handle overpopulation of horses. The Forest Service does not agree with the Bureau of Land Management on how many horses over the 400 limit, the ecosystem can sustain and would want to round up and sell more than the Bureau wants too (Streater, 2018). This disagreement could lead to delays in policy making as both sides will be trying to sway the policy-makers onto their side. Additionally, the California attorney general states that the agency would be breaking California state law if they sold the horses to anyone and had no restrictions as there is state law that prohibits wild horses to be sold to slaughterhouses (Bender, 2018).

Now there is also an issue on state versus federal laws and which one has more power in this situation. The agency is acting as if their law and actions are the final say on this decision and have already sold some of the horses to people. This is a cause of concern for many stakeholders of the case, from wild horse advocate groups to the senator of California, Ms. Feinstein, as they are worried that the horses are sold to places that will not treat them well and could illegally slaughter them, especially the older horses (Streater, 2018). The stakeholders involved have very clear opinions on if the horses should be sold in an unregulated way or not.

By looking at the different stakeholders and the power and influence all of them have, we can better understand why the horses were captured and sold already even though no legislation has been put into place. The biggest player in this controversy is the United States Forest Service. They are the ones who control the land on which this is happening, so they ultimately have the power in deciding the outcome of the horses. They are relying on this control as the power that they have over the rest of the stakeholders. The Forest Service has the competing view as compared to the other stakeholders involved, they seem to be the only ones that are okay with selling the horses to whoever wants to buy them.

The drive behind this decision could be because their goal is to protect their land and ecosystem and restore it to a healthier state (Streater, 2018). The horses, as mentioned before, are destroying the ecosystem and so the Forest Service wants to get rid of them as fast as possible, leading to them rounding up almost 1,000 horses and selling them for very cheap prices to any one who wants them. They are using their ideals of protecting land to sway the public to believing their decision is the right one, as they are trying to make it seem like this is what is best for the environment. However, the other stakeholders do not agree that their ideal of protecting the land is a good enough reason to sell the horses with no limitations.

A stakeholder that does not agree with the Forest Service is the wild horse advocacy groups that are speaking out against this action. They do not have as much power as the Forest Service does as they are much smaller players. They are interest groups that do not have as much money or resources. However, though they are not as powerful, they are still important as they are being very vocal in their displeasure with the Forest Service. These advocacy groups are relying on the passion of their members and the feelings that wild horses invoke in people to fight against the adoption of these horses to potential slaughterhouses.

A specific group, the American Wild Horse Campaign, has spoken out against the Forest Service to many news agencies, using very visual imagery about the fate of the wild horses that would be sold and even saying that the Forest Service was doing the wrong thing with this decision (Streater, 2018). These actions from interest groups shape the narrative of this situation as they make the Forest Service seem like they are bad people who do not care about animals or the environment, which undermines the ideals that the Forest Service is trying to sway the public with. These smaller groups could have influence on policy that comes forth from this if they are able to drum up enough national attention, or the attention of some key legislators.

The final big stakeholder in this situation is the Bureau of Land Management. They are a stakeholder as they are the agency that deals with the most wild horse and donkey territory and could be effected by the Forest Service’s decision. They have already spoken out against the Forest Service decision to not regulate the people who adopt the horses. The Bureau is very influential because it is also a government agency, so it has about the same amount of resources and power as the Forest Service.

However, they could actually have more power in the eventual policy that will come forth from this action because of all the wild horse territory that they operate and own. They already have precedents of how horse capture and auctions should be handled and do not get much backlash from their operations (Streater, 2018). The law that the BLM operates under is what they are using to decide how to handle and advise the Forest Service on this overpopulation situation. This is the big power resource that the BLM has and draws upon in their arguments against the Forest Service’s actions. Overall, the stakeholders against the Forest Service did have some sway over their actions as not as many horses were captured but they could not stop the auction of these horses completely.

This shows that the federal agency that is controlling the public land that an issue is on does have a lot of the power and influence in deciding how to handle that issue. This is a strength in the way that this issue is governed. It makes for very efficient decisions to be made, this situation unfolded over the span of a couple months, which is not that long for a federal agency to make and execute decisions. However, this shows the main weakness in this case which is that the majority of stakeholders were against the final decision and even though there is a precedent on what to do in situations like this from another federal agency, it did not carry over to the Forest Service. This is one of the most important problems that was shown in analyzing this case.

The agency, in this case BLM, that has the most experience and policy about what to do with wild horse and donkey populations in the case of overpopulation while protecting the animals from being sent to slaughterhouses, did not have the sway over the agency, the Forest Service, that had control over the land. Logically, the Forest Service should have been able to look at previous BLM decisions in similar cases and their policy and been able to do something similar. That was not the case though, and the Forest Service acted in their best interest when deciding what to do with the horses and donkeys. They seemed desperate in this situation to make actions happen as quickly as possible in order to protect the ecosystem. The recommendations that I would make to the Forest Service would be to reconsider a decision that had almost no other stakeholder on the same side as you and to look at how other agencies handle similar situations and use it as guidance.

The policy that is in place for the BLM was made to protect the land, animals and the agency when dealing with capture and selling of wild animals. It has been in place for decades and not been replaced or changed, showing that it is effective and approved by more stakeholders. Now that the horses have already been captured and some have already been sold, the next step for the Forest Service would be to make sure the adoptions of the horses that are still under their care, are going to people who are not slaughterhouse buyers and to implement similar vetting processes that the BLM does at their wild horse auctions. This would be the best way to move forward and to ensure that the other stakeholders involved in the case are more pleased with the result.

Overall, the wild horse capture and auctions in United States Forest Service territory now have a different precedent than the same exact actions in Bureau of Land Management territory. This could have more serious consequences in the future for the livelihood of the horses and wild donkeys as well as for the Forest Service. Though no land management issue is ever easy to handle and resolve, the Forest Service ignored a policy used by another agency in similar situations which seemed to already have the guidelines on how to handle everything, making it easy to follow and could have spared them the backlash and disapproval of so many people, just to handle this issue urgently and in the way they wanted.


  1. Bender, Kristin. ‘California Attorney General Warns About Sale Of Wild Horses’. KTVU, 2018, http://www.ktvu.com/news/california-attorney-general-warns-about-sale-of-wild-horses. Accessed 4 Dec 2018
  2. ‘Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory’. Fs.Fed.Us, 2018, https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml. Accessed 4 Dec 2018.
  3. ‘Modoc National Forest – News & Events’. Fs.Usda.Gov, 2018, https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/modoc/news-events/?cid=FSEPRD602931. Accessed 9 Nov 2018.
  4. Streater, Scott, et al. “WILD HORSES: Controversial Calif. Roundup Begins over Feinstein Objections.” WILD HORSES: Controversial Calif. Roundup Begins over Feinstein Objections — Wednesday, October 10, 2018 — Www.eenews.net E&E News — Start a Free Trial, 10 Oct. 2018, www.eenews.net/eenewspm/stories/1060102235/search?keyword=wild%2Bhorse.
  5. Woodhouse , Leighton. “Roundup of Wild Horses in California Could Lead to Illegal Slaughter.” The Intercept, 12 Oct. 2018, theintercept.com/2018/10/12/wild-horses-california-slaughter/.

Cite this paper

Wild Horses in Northern California . (2021, Aug 13). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/wild-horses-in-northern-california/

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