Last October, the US Forest Service (USFS)—which manages approximately 8,000 wild horses and burros in the United States—made a shocking announcement: The agency would soon begin rounding up and selling horses from California’s largest herd without any prohibitions on slaughter. Moreover, some of the horses could be sold for as little as $1 apiece and purchasers could acquire up to 36 at a time. By early November, the USFS had finished rounding up close to 1,000 wild horses from the 300,000-acre Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory in Modoc National Forest.
Public outrage was immediate, given that the plan appears tailor made for sale to kill-buyers—who transport American horses (typically under deplorable conditions that involve little or no rest, water, or food) to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico. AWI and other animal welfare groups immediately urged the California attorney general to enforce the state’s existing law prohibiting horse slaughter.
Twenty-three members of the California state legislature wrote to the USFS demanding that the federal government refrain from moving forward with this reckless plan. Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) also voiced concerns with the USFS’s decision to proceed with sales “without limitation” on slaughter.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the vast majority of America’s wild horses and burros, and there are restrictions on the BLM’s sale of such horses. Every year, AWI works with federal lawmakers to ensure that annual spending bills contain provisions preventing the destruction of BLM-managed wild horses for commercial purposes. Historically, the USFS has abided by such provisions as well. Under the Trump administration, however, the USFS has chosen for the first time to flout Congress’s clear intent by arguing that it is not bound by these provisions.
At the urging of animal protection groups, the California attorney general notified USFS officials that the state fully intends to enforce existing California law, which makes the sale of horses for slaughter a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to three years. Assemblymember Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) has introduced a bill (AB 128) in the California legislature to bolster protections for equines in the state, and AWI is working to ensure that the provisions are as strong as possible. Similarly, AWI is working with federal lawmakers to ensure that the USFS can no longer exploit any perceived loophole in the policies that Congress sets forth regarding wild horses through the appropriations process.
To date, the USFS’s response to the public outcry and warnings from elected officials has been to dig in its heels while attempting to deflect scrutiny and criticism through halfhearted “concessions.” Rather than back away from the plan altogether, the agency merely pushed the time back when sales without limitations on slaughter would begin, from fall to spring of next year. And the agency is sticking with its intention to start selling some of the horses it has rounded up for $1 each. This is a clear indication that the agency—despite its mandate to protect wild horses and manage them humanely on the range—just wants to permanently rid itself (and the range) of these horses as quickly as possible.