The Wild Horses of the Devil’s Garden
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The Wild Horses of the Devil’s Garden

October 14, 2019

In a remote corner of northeast California
lies Modoc County, a place of grand vistas, rough volcanic terrain, and few people. Everybody who spends time here finds some sort of special connection. It’s a unique geologic landscape,
the species mix, the weather, the elevation. I mean I could go on and on about things that
are unique about this area. It is also home to the largest herd of wild
horses managed by the Forest Service. I think a lot of people don’t even know
there are horses out here. I didn’t know there were horses out here. I didn’t know there were horses in California,
wild horses in California. The USDA Forest Service is responsible for
the health of both the land and the horses. In general, the state manages wildlife populations. Wild horses are very different because of
the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act. So congress gave us the privilege of managing
wild horses. Through careful analysis, the Forest Service has determined the appropriate management level, or AML, for horses in this area. This limit has been greatly exceeded. Our territory is supposed to have 206 to 402
animals. We have almost 4000 horses. That’s almost half of the population of
this huge county. The wild horses are to reside within a specific area or territory. Over time those horses, as the population
has grown, have expanded beyond the territories. The boundary of the territory doesn’t keep
the horses inside the territory. So if we get a call from a private land owner
that says they have wild horses on their land, it’s our responsibility to manage those horses. The horse territory within the Devil’s Garden
spans more than 250,000 acres. We have the largest wild horse territory in
the Forest Service by acres, and it sounds like a lot of acres for 4000 horses, but there’s not a lot of vegetation, and not a lot of water. The horses are an unmanaged, very large ungulate. And so they have to eat a lot of forage. And in this area, the horses are out here
seven days a week, you know 52 weeks out of the year and they graze that forage over and
over and over again. And the native grasses are not able to continue
growing. We’re changing from one grass species to
another out here that’s not as edible, not as resilient. The conversion to these annual grasses that are just not as nutritious as the native bunch grasses were. And the horses are just digging holes looking for the nutrients they need. Not only do the wild horses harm the native vegetation, they also affect both the quality and the quantity of the region’s scarce water. We do have really unique wetland areas here
on the Devil’s Garden, both in terms of our vernal pools but also in our natural springs
that are here throughout the Devil’s Garden. You have animals getting into these springs,
and they actually can cause so much compaction at the spring site, that it will actually
stop up the spring. And so it diminishes the spring and it diminishes the clean water that comes out of those. Additionally they will guard those springs
from other animals like elk and deer and other wildlife. I love all wildlife. And I LOVE horses, but I’m out here and
like we don’t see a lot of pronghorn, we don’t see a ton of deer out here anymore, and she’s a bird lover, and we want to see a healthy ecosystem. We want to see, this, this is a round thing,
it’s not just the horses’ home. Recognizing damage by wild horses is easiest
when comparing it to adjacent healthy land. There’s a private land owner who fenced
out his property from horses. And so it’s a great site to go to
as a control and comparing what those areas look like to the adjacent land and the adjacent springs. And those springs are where the horses like to congregate. They love the clean water. And this provides a really good window into what we could have. And it’s a great reminder for me of what
a good riparian area should look like. So what we are starting to see is changes
in vegetation that aren’t positive. We’re starting to see the horses expand
beyond the territory boundaries that they have, and as you visit these areas and you
see the impact, you really start understanding the magnitude of the problem. Horses can be part of the ecosystem here,
and part of multi-use, but not all of it. And if we want to keep these areas wild and available for recreation, and for multi-use, we need to manage the wild horse. And we care about the horses, we love the
horses. We want to see them treated well. And I think we’ve just recognized that it’s
time that we take a more active approach in taking care of the horses, taking care of
the landscape, and really managing the land which is our duty.

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