SACRAMENTO (CN) — Ranchers in Northern California sued the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday, claiming it knowingly let wild horses overpopulate the Modoc National Forest and deplete their grazing resources.
The Devil’s Garden Preservation Group, Wilson Ranches and Green Valley Corp. dba MS Ranch sued the Forest Service in Federal Court, represented by Dennis Porter in Sacramento and the Western Resources Legal Center in Portland, Oregon.
Wilson Ranches says it spent $150,000 for a grazing permit in the Devil’s Garden Plateau 15 years ago, and that the area’s population of wild horses today is 750 percent of the land’s capacity: 261 wild horses on land fit for 35. The Devil’s Garden Plateau is in the Modoc National Forest, on the California-Oregon border.
“Following the 2016 foaling season, an estimated 2,800 wild horses overpopulate the Modoc National Forest – substantially above the upper limit of the Appropriate Management Level of 402 wild horses,” the complaint states.
“Defendant’s failure to control excess animals within the DGWHT [Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory] causes the loss or diminution of vegetation, decreases water quantity and quality, and increases the risk of wildfire on the Modoc National Forest and adjacent private lands,” the ranchers says. It also damages their livestock operations.
Wild horse herds have become a perennial issue in the West, where animal rights groups tend to resist any effort to cull or remove herds, as ranchers demand.
In this complaint, the ranchers say the Forest Service knows about the overpopulation, but has failed to take action to remove horses from the area. “Instead, they have decided to entirely eliminate livestock grazing from the two grazing allotments with the largest concentration of wild horses.”
Wilson Ranches says it has run cattle on the plateau for nine generations, and informed the Forest Service about the overpopulation in 2010, 2013 and 2014. In response, it says, the Forest Service reduced its livestock permit from 600 cattle to 300.
“Wilson Ranches was recently notified of the decision that next year in 2018, the Forest Service will shut down its allotment because of wild horses, preventing Wilson Ranches from utilizing the allotment at all,” the complaint states. “The Forest Service decided to reduce Wilson Ranches’ Pine Springs Allotment cattle numbers to zero.”
Grazing allotments are crucial to the economy of Modoc County, where ranchers graze on public lands for about half the year, the ranchers say.
“According to the 2010 Modoc County Agricultural Commissioner’s report, livestock sales were 33.3 percent of the total $112.1 million in farm cash receipts,” according to the complaint.
Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, wild horses should be removed if they pose a threat to themselves, their habitat or other environmental resources, the ranchers say.
“Significant negative impacts on ecosystem health have resulted due to wild horse overpopulation both inside and outside the DGWHT: degraded riparian areas; loss of one or more endemic plant species on many upland ranges; and conversion to annual grasses and invasive plants on many upper range sites,” they add.
Wild horses are consuming 40 percent more plant life than they are allocated, so there is less nutrition available for livestock, and the horses have posed safety risks as they wander onto roads and cross the border into Oregon, the ranchers say.
They seek declaratory judgment that the Forest Service violated the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, an injunction ordering it to remove excess wild horses from the area immediately, and an order vacating the decision to eliminate grazing from the two allotments.
Neither party could be reached for comment Thursday.