California Attorney General Xavier Becerra warned U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a letter that the U.S. Forest Service would be in violation of state law if any of the wild horses rounded up in Modoc National Forest are sold for the purpose of slaughter.
“To slaughter for commercial consumption mustangs that have roamed California for over a century is not only atrocious, but unlawful,” Becerra said in a statement. “These majestic animals captivate the imagination and symbolize the rugged independence of the American West.”
The Forest Service announced in early October that it planned to round up an estimated 1,000 wild horses from the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory inside Modoc National Forest, located in northeast California.
The stated purpose of the gather was to reduce a herd size that has grown to an estimated 4,000 horses — roughly 10 times what that area can actually support, according to the Forest Service.
While approximately 700 of the mustangs were to be handed over to the Department of the Interior to be adopted out, another 300 horses — aged 10 or older — would be given 30 days to be adopted and then sold for $1 each without limitation, meaning slaughterhouse buyers could purchase them.
The plan drew considerable condemnation, from wild horse advocacy groups like the American Wild Horse Campaign and the Humane Society of the United States, from Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and from Republican California Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, who is now minority leader.
Federal law prohibits the Department of Interior, including its Bureau of Land Management, which oversees most of America’s wild horses, from selling horses for the purpose of slaughter. However, the USDA and Forest Service have no such restriction.
Becerra warned the Forest Service that selling horses to a slaughter buyer is a felony in California, punishable by up to three years in prison.
It’s unclear whether state law would be applicable for horses gathered on federal land; neither Becerra’s office nor representatives for the USDA and Forest Service returned requests for comment.
The horse gather concluded on Thursday, with a total of 932 horses gathered, the Forest Service reported.
Some horses were injured during the gather process, and several horses were euthanized for illness; including several from an outbreak of “pigeon fever,” a contagious disease among horses that spreads by flies, according to the American Wild Horse Campaign.
The AWHC criticized the Forest Service for euthanizing horses for a disease that “is treatable with veterinary care.”
According to the Forest Service, the first adoption event will take place on Nov. 16-17. More information about that event, and how to adopt a wild horse, is available by visiting https://www.fs.usda.gov/modoc.