SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge urged the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday to work out a deal with animal rights activists who claim a plan to shrink the glut of wild horses in a Northern California forest will cause some horses to get slaughtered.
“I’m going to give you this opportunity to work something out before the hammer drops because once it drops, it drops,” U.S. District Judge James Donato said in court Thursday.
After umpiring 90 minutes of debate on whether a decision to sell horses rounded up in Modoc National Forest “without limitations” was a policy change that requires an explanation and environmental review, Donato seized upon what he called a “breakthrough moment.”
That moment came when Justice Department lawyer Rickey Turner said the U.S. Forest Service “will never knowingly sell a horse for slaughter for human consumption.”
Before capitalizing on the government’s pledge to urge settlement talks, Donato appeared to favor arguments that the decision to sell horses “without limits” was a dramatic change in policy that required notice and public comment.
“I do not see any evidence in the record that this is anything other than an abrupt and major shift in Forest Service policy,” Donato said.
William Eubanks II, a lawyer for plaintiff Animal Legal Defense Fund, implored the judge to barrel forward with ruling on the group’s motion for a preliminary injunction to block the unrestricted sale of horses, despite the government’s vow not to sell horses for human consumption.
Eubanks, of Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks in Fort Collins, Colorado, said the lawsuit is not just about selling horses for slaughter. It’s about the Forest Service’s dramatic shift in policy from selling horses with limitations to selling them without restrictions, he said.
“We’re challenging this major change in practice, and it’s not limited to slaughter,” Eubanks said.
Judge Donato disagreed.
“This complaint was about one thing only,” Donato said. “You wanted to stop the sale of horses for human consumption.”
Although no facilities slaughter horses in the United States, “kill buyers” can buy and ship horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico where horse meat is processed and sold overseas, according to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit.
Modoc County and a group of ranching interest groups, who previously sued the Forest Service for letting wild horses deplete their grazing resources, sought to intervene in the case. The ranchers’ suit against the government in the Eastern District of California is currently on hold as both sides try to reach a settlement.
Several ranchers from Modoc County traveled 350 miles south to attend Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco. One of those ranchers was Tee Wilson, who manages about 200 cows on private and public land in Modoc County.
Wilson said an overpopulation of horses poses major problems for ranchers. Because they have no predators, the horses grow “exponentially” in number and drain resources that cattle and other wild animals need to survive, he said.
Regarding the judge’s suggestion that both sides try to work out a deal, Wilson said he thinks it’s an important “step forward.”
“That’s what we wanted so we think it’s good the judge suggested that,” he said.
Christopher Barry, a staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the organization was “surprised” by the government’s vow not to sell horses for human consumption and hopeful about reaching an agreement.
“The ALDF looks forward to talking with the government about how to make sure horses aren’t illegally sold for slaughter,” Barry said.
Donato asked both sides to try working out the language for an agreement to resolve the case over the next 30 days, adding he could refer them to a magistrate judge for help if necessary.
According to the government, the Modoc National Forest already sold or gave up for adoption 180 wild horses rounded up last fall. Only 18 horses remain subject to potentially unrestricted sales at this time, but an operation to corral more horses is planned for later this year.
ALDF’s co-plaintiffs include American Wild Horse Campaign and Carla Bowers, a California resident who regularly visits Modoc National Forest where she “enjoys observing, photographing and studying the wild horses.”
The plaintiffs claim the alleged plan to sell wild horses for slaughter violates the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 along with federal forest management, environmental protection and administrative process laws.
Nestled in the northeastern corner of California, the 1.6-million-acre Modoc National Forest has for decades managed wild horses that roam free in its famed Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory.
More concrete help may be on the way for Modoc County’s wild horses: Also on Thursday, the California Assembly unanimously passed a bill that would require auction houses in the state to proactively remind potential buyers of domestic and wild horses that California law forbids the sale of horses for slaughter for human consumption.