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A New Era of Wild Horse Management

The Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Gather has come to a close. After a month’s work of early mornings and late evenings, over 900 horses will be relocated from Devil’s Garden to the new Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals as well as BLM’s Litchfield Corrals. There have been news crews and public viewers out to watch the operation almost everyday. We have accumulated supporters and critics alike, from passionate wild horse advocates to interested locals. Viewers have flown in from as far as the East Coast to see for themselves the ongoing event.

Wild horse gathers have been used as a management tool to alleviate pressure on the range since ranchers turned out saddle stock that turned into overpopulated range herds, todays wild horses. Wild horse gathers have evolved from rather rudimentary and sometimes quite brutal methods, to the humane and skilled operations we see today.

The history of these changes occurred three hours Southeast of here in Reno, NV. Velma Johnston “Wild Horse Annie” and August “Gus” Bundy figure prominently in this story. Velma Johnston, a local real estate secretary and owner of a ranch near Virginia City, worked actively to sabotage wild horse roundups. Gus Bundy was a rancher and artist, known to always have a camera on hand, capturing everyday Western life. Bundy was a horse transport driver himself. In the 1950s wild horse roundups were considered a part of ranch life, in order to keep balance on the range. In those days’ horse meat was not a taboo subject but rather had provided essential nutrition through WWI and WWII. Bundy photographed so-called ‘mustangers’, ranchers rounding up wild horses, these images have been transformed into animal rights pleas today. Velma Johnston transformed the documentation of working life into one of animal cruelty and persecution through her use of Bundy’s photographs in her anti-mustanger campaigns.

Bundy’s photographs were spread nationwide alongside Breyer’s first plastic horse figurine, the western horse, children’s books like Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West, and the Misfits, a film villanizing mustangers. Soon, TIME, New York Times, Ranger Rick’s Nature Magazine, the Sierra Club Bulletin, and Newsweek had all covered the plight of wild horses. The publicity drive contributed significantly to the passage of the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act in 1971. Congress designated wild horses neither as wildlife nor strays but rather as a heritage species based on sentimental meaning. This sentimentality remains in the wild horse and burro advocacy today. The shift of horses from their role as working livestock to symbols of unharnessed freedom does not release them from the reality of the impact a living animal has on the environment in which it resides. Wild horses are forever the contradiction between wild and feral, free and domesticated, mystical and grounded.

Here in Modoc County we see the results of this transformation from workhorse to cultural symbol. Ranching families that once turned out their horses with their cattle and dealt with stray feral horses now feel the effects of the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act. Hunters seeking a deer or elk tag no longer have the same opportunities their grandparents did. Fishermen face poor quality and fewer fish. Sage grouse enthusiasts see fewer leks. Local families are impacted by changed fire regimes.

Unchecked by predators, wild horse populations grow at a rate of 18-25% per year. To do the math, a 3,900 horse population, like that of Devil’s Garden, would increase by 702 horses in one year, a conservative estimate. With limited forage and water resources, 702 horses is a tremendous amount of mouths to feed, especially alongside the deer, elk, and pronghorn that also make a home there. People hear the 1,000 horse gather intent and think it is an extraordinary number. Yes, it is a lot of horses, but 1,000 really just accounts for slightly more than the increase in population for the next year. In 2016 Modoc National Forest conducted the first wild horse roundup since 2006. 290 horses were gathered; many were returned to the Garden.

In a perfect world, we would only have to round up a handful of horses and each horse would have a home waiting. Sadly, if we took this approach the population would continue to grow until they became severely food limited and started to die off from starvation and dehydration. By that point the land and water resources would also be severely damaged, possibly unrecoverable.

There are only a handful of wild horse contractors nationwide. It is a skill that requires dedication and perseverance, in the face of complicated public land policies and unhappy wild horse advocates. Companies such as Catoor Livestock Roundup are family businesses, dedicated to perfecting the most humane wild horse gathers. They use helicopters to scout out and move the horses safely to the trap. A natural funnel, made of a long line of jute on t-posts directs the horses towards the corral. The Judas horse, a domesticated saddle horse, is released in front of the group of wild horses and safely leads them into the corrals. From there, the gate is shut and the horses are loaded onto a trailer to be transported to holding. This is quite the transformation from the methods once used. No longer are there mustangers roping wild horses and tying them to tires to wear them out. Wild horses are gathered humanely and carefully brought to facilities to be fed and cared for until placed.

Although everyone involved in the gather can be proud of the work accomplished, it is not over yet. The Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals is now home to 260 wild horses. Over 600 of the Devil’s Garden wild horses have been sent to the BLM Litchfield Corrals. Now is the time to work tirelessly to ensure there are possibilities for these horses other than long term holding. There are a vast number of outcomes for wild horses between the extremist cries of running free and going to slaughter.

Sale, for one, does not have to be a frightening outcome. Over 20 Devil’s Garden wild horses have been sold with limitations to trainers and good homes. Sale with limitation allows for the purchase of up to 24 horses, ages 10 and older at $25 each. This is not new, the BLM has a policy to sell horses 10 and older as well as those that have been offered for adoption at least three times. Sale forms looks similar to adoption forms, asking about feed, water, pasture, and trailers but unlike adoption it offers the horse’s title immediately, instead of after one year. Sale allows trainers and those equipped to gentle and train wild horses to do just that, and in the long run provides the average horse owner with the ability to care for a wild horse. A $25 horse can be profitable to a trainer, and increase the number of horses moving through the system of adoption/sale instead of sitting in long term holding. Although adoption is a wonderful option, it is not always the most accessible. Sale allows those horse owners who may be perfectly equipped to handle a wild horse to do so even if they cannot follow the most stringent of requirements for fencing and such.

With over 900 horses gathered this year and plans to gather wild horses on Devil’s Garden for the next four years in order to reach the appropriate management level (AML), it is necessary to continue with creative and fulfilling solutions to place wild horses. The 2016 gather resulted in some application of PZP and many rereleases. Some of the horses gathered this year had been gathered once before in 2016. Releasing and re-gathering horses is neither cost effective nor safe for the horses or roundup companies. Neither is holding them all in facilities their entire lives. Over 50,000 horses are currently housed in holding facilities across the country and cost $50 million dollars a year to care for and feed. Although this is a daunting number I am optimistic that horse culture can change and that more can be done to find solutions rather than create barriers for the agencies responsible for the management of wild horses.

After the grand opening and first adoption event at the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals, 24 horses have been adopted and 49 have been sold with limitations. I had the opportunity to meet adopters/buyers from Michigan, Southern California, Nevada, and Oregon, to name a few. We had a couple purchase a mare/foal pair for their grandchildren. Another couple made a trip from their home in the Midwest to pick out several horses, to add to the other wild horses they have already adopted. Trainers out of Reno and Oregon have taken 4+ horses each to gentle before finding them their forever homes. Adopters that had made the trip up to Devil’s Garden weeks prior to view the gather returned to pick out their own wild horse.

They are not alone. We have been working hard to advertise the horses through the Facebook page, adoption events and to locals and horse enthusiasts across the country.

To the public that has taken the time to view the gather or visit the corrals, we appreciate it. To those of you who have spread the word about the horses we have for adoption/sale, we thank you. There is a lot of controversy surrounding gathers and I believe it is important for people to see it for themselves. Even if you cannot provide a home yourself, you can help by telling others about Devil’s Garden wild horses, by paying for the transport of wild horses for trainers and others, or by educating yourself about wild horse management. To those who have expressed interest in adopting, buying, training, or supporting Devil’s Garden Wild Horses, thank you so much You have provided positive solutions for these horses and are a means to a better future.

For more information:

Catoor Livestock Roundups

Carr Childers, Leisl. 2013. “Leisl Carr Childers on The Gus Bundy Photographs and The Wild Horse Controversy.” Environmental History 18 (3): 604–20.

BLM sales program

USFS Devil’s Garden wild horses home page

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