(May 30, 2019 The Forest Service has abandoned a controversial proposal to sell wild horses rounded up at California's Modoc National Forest without first ensuring that the animals don't end up in slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.
However, a Forest Service spokeswoman told E&E News today that the decision is not final and is only in place while a federal lawsuit challenging so-called sales without limitation is resolved.
"Until the current lawsuit filed by the wild horse advocate groups is resolved we have agreed to limit sales so any horses sold are not for human consumption, and we are only selling with limitations at this time," Babete Anderson, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said in an email.
The move to at least temporarily halt the proposed sale is a victory for dozens of congressional leaders and animal rights advocates who strongly opposed selling wild horses and burros without protecting them from slaughter.
But Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said it's a hollow victory because the service "continues to pursue sale without limitation in light of the fact that it intends to conduct another large roundup of wild horses" from Modoc this fall.
The American Wild Horse Campaign is part of a coalition of animal rights groups that last year filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California challenging the roundup last fall and any future sale of those animals (E&E News PM, Oct. 22, 2018).
Roy shared the transcript of a May 9 hearing before U.S. District Judge James Donato in which a Justice Department attorney representing the Forest Service argued it has always been the service's "policy" to offer captured animals for sale without limitations.
Rickey Turner, an attorney in DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division based in Denver, described such sales as "the last option, the last resort" for horses the service could not adopt, or could not sell with limitations on future use, according to the 55-page transcript.
Turner later added that the Forest Service "would never sell a horse without limitation to a buyer for the purpose of slaughter for human consumption." But he conceded, "they can go to slaughter for wild animal sanctuaries, for zoos," or for "bucking stock, farm stock, ranch stock."
"You know, I don't want to minimize the sensitive and serious nature of a sale without limitation, the potential that a horse could be slaughtered. That's important," he added. "We don't want to be ultimately a part of that. The Forest Service doesn't want to, either. It is a last, a very, very last option."
In the case of the hundreds of wild horses that were rounded up off of Modoc National Forest last fall, the "last option" of sale without limitation may not be needed.
Anderson, in her email to E&E News, said the Forest Service has been able to adopt out all but a handful of the 261 wild horses it was holding at Modoc.
"Through the efforts of many partners we have collectively found safe homes for all but 21 of these horses so far," Anderson wrote.
The effort to have the horses adopted into safe homes will continue, Anderson said.
"We look forward to continuing to work with all of those committed to finding safe homes for the horses and managing for a healthy wild horse herd, and healthy range land conditions," she wrote in an email.
But the monthslong saga over the fate of the 261 wild horses removed from the forest's Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory is not over.
Congressional leaders continue to strongly oppose any such sale. The concern is that sales without limits on the future use would lead the horses, eventually, to be sold to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.
As recently as three weeks ago a bipartisan group of 64 members of Congress sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen asking them to cancel any planned sale of wild horses without first ensuring the purchased animals don't end up in foreign slaughterhouses (Greenwire, May 6).
House appropriators, in an Interior-EPA funding billthat moved out of committee this month, included the standard provision forbidding the Bureau of Land Management from unlimited sales, or the "destruction" of healthy, unadopted animals.
Because the rounded-up horses at Modoc are being held at a corral built on the national forest site, they are not subject to the standard congressional appropriations language on unlimited sale that applies to Interior and BLM.
But, for the first time, the appropriations bill stipulation included the Forest Service.
The bill states that any appropriated funds to the Forest Service "shall not be available for the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros in the care of the Forest Service or its contractors or for the sale of wild horses and burros that results in their destruction for processing into commercial products."