The Wild West is not so wild anymore. Cowboys have mostly disappeared. Few horses run free—the iconic creatures that once symbolized the adventurous American spirit are under threat and, as is fitting in our litigious times, only a lawsuit may save them.
A new federal case, filed in California by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Wild Horse Campaign, hopes to block the US Forest Service from capturing and selling wild horses for slaughter. The Forest Service is rounding up 1,000 horses in the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory on the Modoc National Forest in California, with plans to sell the creatures for a dollar each, without limitation, if the captured animals aren’t bought within 60 days. They could then be trucked across the border to Mexico and Canada, killed, and sold as meat for human consumption abroad.
Last year, the Trump administration—under pressure from ranchers with livestock roaming on federal land, particularly the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and state rancher groups—removed limitations on sales of “excess” wild horses. This year, the Forest Service has acted on the less restrictive policy.
By Oct. 19, a total of 388 horses had been herded by helicopter and removed from the California federal forest lands where they still run free. Horses over age 10 will be sold under the new, less-restrictive policy if they aren’t picked up by buyers soon. And about 700 young horses are being sent to Bureau of Land Management holding corrals, where they will be offered for adoption. Any younger horses not adopted after one year may face sale without limitation as well.
“The vast majority of Americans want our iconic wild horses protected on our public lands, not slaughtered,” Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said in a statement. “The Forest Service’s decision to treat these national treasures like trash by selling them by the truckload into the slaughter pipeline is unconscionable. Even worse, this is happening in California, a state that has banned the cruel practice of horse slaughter for two decades.”
The suit argues that the Forest Service made its decision to sell horses without limitation in violation of the California ban and without allowing any notice or public comment, as required by federal statute. Indeed, on Oct. 4, Ken Sandusky, a Forest Service official acknowledged that unlimited wild-horse sales are unprecedented and stated that “basically everything we’re doing is new,” the complaint (pdf) states.
The animal advocacy groups want a court to stop the sales and they have support from some governmental authorities. On Oct. 9, senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, sent a letter (pdf) to Vicki Christiansen, acting chief of the forest service, calling for a halt of the roundup and sale of wild horses in her state, asking how Christiansen would ensure animals would not be sold for slaughter.
California State Assemblyman Todd Gloria and 22 state legislative colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, also want the horse roundup stopped. In a letter (pdf) to Christiansen, the lawmakers demanded assurances wild horses will not be sold for slaughter. Gloria wrote, “It is unconscionable that the federal government would stoop this low and come after California wild horses with the possibility of sending them into the slaughter pipeline.”
In 1971, Congress enacted the Wild Horse Act, fearing they were quickly “disappearing from the American scene.” It declared the horses protected, noting that “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Now, almost half a century later, a federal agency represents their most serious threat.