California Outback Report: Forest Service Announces Wild Horse Roundup While Davis Creek Entertains Escapee Equine

The Davis Creek Mercantile offers hot lunches and clean bathrooms. You can make a real landline phone booth call, too.

The Davis Creek Mercantile offers hot lunches and clean bathrooms. You can make a real landline phone booth call, too.

DAVIS CREEK—Travelers stopping at the Davis Creek Mercantile, 20 miles north of Alturas on Highway 395, usually ask for directions to the needle mines 8 miles up the Forest Service road in the Warner Mountains. The store—also a two-pump gas station and United States Post Office—issues permits—no charge—for folks to take obsidian—also free, courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service, and well, the people of the United States.

The mercantile is the kind of store you are happy to find when out on the open road—either if you are monitoring the gas gauge or packing a full bladder. Davis Creek sports a population of 53, and the store is the only going business around; the next town with stores is Lakeview, Ore., an hour north.

Besides gas and mail, the mercantile offers groceries, hot lunches, clean bathrooms and out front one of the last vestiges of the 20th Century: a telephone booth (and yes, the phone works). The store is known for its Taco Thursday specials and a Friday night barbecue during summer.

Behind the counter today filling the duties of manager, agent and postmaster is Neneekah Forrest—a member of the Pit River Tribe. She also takes this traveler’s question: “Have you seen any wild horses?” The answer is—yes—one horse—and, conveniently, right across the road at the Lakeshore Ranch.

Forrest happily walks out the front door and points to a bulky dark gray Appaloosa mix mixing it up with grazing cattle in pasture ground green still with the flush of spring.

“He was skinny when he got here and now he’s plump,” she said. The locals named the horse Taco Meat. She said they talked about making a T-shirt with his photo on it.

Taco Meat—who showed up in February—doesn’t realize that he’s infamous in another way—he’s classified as a nuisance horse by the Forest Service—that’s one which has escaped, straying off federal land and onto neighboring private or tribal lands. So a T-shirt would be kind of appropriate, as he is emblematic of a “complex issue” (the words of District Ranger Tim Davis) for the Modoc National Forest: Too many wild horses treading on the local ecology and economy of the region.

That place is one with the ironic, self-cancelling name of the Devil’s Garden. The “Garden” as Modocers call it is a million acres of sagebrush and junipers—an “expansive prehistoric lava flow”—sitting at the top end of the county, bordering Oregon. In the dry, much of the juniper flats are frankly boring, but the high elevations are reminiscent of the low hills around Lake Tahoe—with sugar pines and other conifers. Right now, this very arid landscape is replete with springs and running streams, little lakes and marshes and fields carpeted by bouquets of wildflowers—some shimmer so blue you think they are the water. And on this landscape, the horses are trampling the sage grouse habitat and eating up cattle forage.

“It’s not that horses are evil,” Davis said. “They are just over-utilizing the resources.”

A census in the Devil’s Garden conducted from a helicopter fly-over last winter found 2,246 horses—not including this year’s foals, according to Davis.

One hundred—101 if you include Taco Meat—of them had wandered onto private lands and off of the designated Wild Horse Territory (created by a 1971 Congressional act protecting wild free-roaming horses and burros). The Wild Horse Territory in Modoc National Forest consists of 232,520 acres in two sections between Tule Lake and Goose Lake, and the Forest Service, Davis said, has determined 206 to 402 adult horses to be the “appropriate management level.”

The horses are descendants of those belonging to ranchers, who, in the 1920s and 1930s, let them forage on the Devil’s Garden. Some escaped from ranches, others were just abandoned, said Rangeland Management Specialist Jenny Jayo.

Davis Creek’s store manager also offers this: “People just let their horses go up there. I happens more often than you think.”

A wild horse that locals named Taco Meat has found safe pasture and some cattle buddies across from the store in Davis Creek.

A wild horse that locals named Taco Meat has found safe pasture and some cattle buddies across from the store in Davis Creek.

At a public meeting May 31 at the Devil’s Garden Ranger office in Alturas, officials announced that a roundup of the horses—principally those on the private and tribal lands, will be conducted in September, using helicopter, trained horses and actual cowboys. According to the plan, they aim to gather 200 horses and sort them by age, sex and health. Horses over age 6 will be returned to their roaming grounds; the others will be trucked down Highway 395 to the Litchfield Corrals, where the Bureau of Land Management holds wild burros and horses until they are ready for adoption.

The roundup, according officials, is admittedly a pilot project of sorts—for the USFS to gain experience and success in hopes that funds can be budgeted in future years. This roundup has a budget of $600,000. Previously, the Bureau of Land Management has operated the roundups, but going forward the USFS is taking over, and by 2018 it hopes to make inroads on reducing the wild horse population that are actually on Forest Service land, said Amanda McAdams, Modoc National Forest Supervisor.

Back at the Davis Creek Mercantile, a new traveler—a lady truck driver from Oregon pulling a load of graphite plates to Southern California—asks for current information on the obsidian mines. She wants to bring her stepson down for a look-see. Forrest gives her the latest scoop and then returns to the subject of what will happen to local celebrity Taco Meat.

The horse, she said, escaped the fenced pasture once and nearly got hit on the highway, and then they tried moving him.

“It kicked in the grill of the firetruck—so they just left him.”

On Wednesday, he was flicking his tail and still placidly munching the grass with his cow-pals.


H.A. Silliman
H.A. Silliman is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He served as the VP of Communications for the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and holds a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. from Sacramento State University.
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8 Responses

  1. Avatar name says:

    A great name for a horse – heh heh!

  2. Avatar KarenC says:

    I  love places like this.  When my husband and  I were in our RV traveling years, we would run across places like this out in the middle of nowhere.  We always found something interesting, and usually great food.  Thanks for the fun story.

  3. Avatar Marybeth Devlin says:

    Inadequate Population of Wild Horses in The Garden

    The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recommends a minimum-viable population (MVP) of at least 2,500 for a wild-horse herd.  The arbitrary management level (AML) for the wild horses of The Garden — 206 to 402 — is way-below MVP.  Even at 2,246 adult horses, Devil’s Garden is underpopulated.  Further, that number is surely over-estimated because helicopter-surveys are known to double-count due to horse-movement.  The AML implies that each horse needs 578 to 1,129 acres.  But how many acres does BLM estimate each cow or calf needs?  Answer: 38 acres.  So, absolutely, The Garden’s 232,500 acres could support 2,500 horses at 93 acres per horse.  I further note that it was USFS who split the horses’ habitat into 2 sections and, in so doing, took away 25,500 acres, which were then given over to commercial livestock, which already had many more grazing slots than the horses.  Indeed, USFS allows nearly 4,000 cattle to graze in The Garden, where the horses are supposed to, by law, have principal use.

    Local Parties May Be Loosing Their Horses in The Garden

    I found it telling that Davis Creek’s store manager said: “People just let their horses go up there. It happens more often than you think.”  Thus, the irresponsible owners of unwanted horses seem to be giving the true wild horses a bad reputation.

    Helicopters Are Dangerous

    Helicopters pose risks to both humans and horses.  Their crash-record is high, with numerous fatalities.  Using helicopters to chase wild horses is abusive, especially in The Garden, where the landscape has been described as “… brutal for gathering.  Dense stands of Western Juniper and many rocky outcropping make this landscape one of the most difficult places in the country to gather wild horses.”  The thunderous, high-intensity noise of a low-flying helicopter terrorizes wild horses.  The rotor wash blasts them with sand, dirt, and gravel.  Panicked by the chaos, the horses stampede, injure themselves, and become separated from their babies and bandmates.  Mares miscarry.  Foals become orphans.  Many horses die from stress, even more have to be euthanized.  Helicopter-style roundups are abusive.  This is unacceptable.

    Costs and Method

    Spending $600,000 on a helicopter roundup is a waste of taxpayer money, especially because there is a better way.  Modoc National Forest Office declared that it had all the necessary equipment on hand to conduct bait-trapping operations in a humane manner.  Therefore, the bait-trapping method should be used — when the herd substantially exceeds the IUCN guidelines for MVP.  Bait-trapping is the cost-effective and humane technique.  And it qualifies as a best-management practice.

    Dealing with Roving Equids

    Horses will roam.  It is their nature.  Surely, that’s why the Law is known as the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.  It is management’s duty to keep them from places they should not be.  Prevention is key.  Removing horses that have wandered into onto private and Tribal lands just creates a vacuum for other horses to fill.  Thus, removing them is an ineffective strategy.  The elimination of mustangs from an open, accessible habitat results in repeated colonization by more mustangs.  The process begins almost immediately, as horses roam into the area and see that it is attractive and vacant.  Thus, removal is not a true solution.  Instead, it perpetuates the problem and leads to the removal of more mustangs, a costly and unnecessary recurring action.  More unfairly, the wandering equids may be only temporary visitors, not permanent residents.  Worse yet, they may be driven out of their habitat by a profit-motivated helicopter pilot eager to “make his numbers.”

    Prevention First

    USFS and BLM should implement preventive measures to keep wild horses home in their habitat.  Fence The Garden’s perimeters — after correcting all boundary-line discrepancies, making sure migration corridors are open, and restoring any herd-area land previously taken away.  Next, address those factors that allowed the animals to leave home.  Do fences need repair?  Do gates need to be checked frequently and closed?

    About Those Fences

    I noted that the USFS’ Press Release alluded to how the roundup would supposedly ” … reduce damage to privately owned fences ….”  This peculiar justification implies that wild horses are being blamed for property-owners’ failure to maintain their own fences.  Because the rationale is wrong, the wild horses should not lose their freedom.  Yet, if fences must be fixed in order for the wild horses to stay free, it would be more cost-effective for USFS and BLM to use public funds to pay to have those private fences repaired than to pay for a helicopter-gather.  Doing so would save taxpayer-dollars in both the short term and in the long run.  Therefore, fixing the fences is the correct solution.  Removing wild horses will not fix fences.

    • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

      During the meeting at the USFS, I wondered where the horses came from and mentioned where in the article. They are not native to the Devil’s Garden.  So as a species, they don’t belong there, according to the USFS. One of the facts that was also mentioned at the meeting was that the USFS plan that had been challenged legally was upheld by a U.S. Court. This first gather is a pilot test to see how that plan goes.

      • Avatar Boni Mueller says:

        If we were to use the ideology of them not belonging there, then technically, neither do the humans. Js.

        • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

          Yes, that’s a very good point. I enjoyed a new perspective on this after reading “After the Ice:  A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC” by Steve Mithen.


      • Avatar Sue carter says:

        I wondered where the 4,000 cattle came from. You have to ask yourself why the USFS allow 4,000 privately-owned cattle are given free-range of Devils Garden. Cattle are without question non-native  species.  They stand in streams and ponds, defecating in the water like bloated, mini-pollution factories.

        Their owners are being subsidized with our tax dollars by privatizing publicly-owned land for gluttonous ranchers who should keep their own cattle on their own land.

        Wake up California, no tourists are coming through looking for cattle. The horses are beautiful and magnificent. Open migration corridors and let them behave as Wild horses are supposed to, interacting  in family bands.

        Get rid of the cows. Keep the horses.

        • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

          I wondered about the theory, too, of cattle vs horses. I bet USFS considers partially the revenue it gets from grazing permits, etc. Only Congressional action could change any of this, probably.