"Wild horses have been present on the Devils Garden Plateau for more than 130 years. Many of the early horses escaped from settlers during the Indian Wars or were released when their usefulness as domestic animals ended. In later years, local ranchers turned horses out to graze and then gathered them as needed. It is believed that three different ranches, which had permitted horses on the National Forest, greatly influenced the current herd composition. Draft breeds influenced the horses in the west portion of the territory. Lighter riding breeds influenced the horses in the east portion of the territory."
The Modoc NF's Devils Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory is comprised of roughly 236,000 acres of National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land. Included are portions of 10 grazing allotments on the Doublehead and Devils Garden Ranger Districts. A population objective (Herd Management Level [HML}) of 305 horses, on the average, was established in the 1980 Herd Management Plan and the 1991 Modoc Forest Plan.
The Devils Garden is aptly named. While the terrain is relatively flat, horses range through a rough and rocky lava plateau. Stock water is often limited. Juniper encroachment has steadily decreased the amount of forage available for use, and soils are typically characterized with a hardpan sub straight restricting water percolation, resulting in low forage production potential. During the early winter before ground freezes up and during spring thaw there is high potential for soil compaction.
Historically, horses have run on the Devils Garden Plateau for more than 130 years. Many of the early horses escaped from settlers during the Indian wars or were released when their usefulness as domestic animals ended. In later years, like many areas throughout the west, local area ranchers turned horses out to graze and then gathered them, as they were needed. Record high numbers of horses were bred for the military during World I. By 1947, concern about deteriorated range conditions prompted the removal of 287 unclaimed trespass horses. Periodical efforts to remove “trespass” livestock were continued until 1971.
With the passage of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act (PL 92-195), private roundups of horses ended. In 1974, as initial step toward management, the Forest Service inventoried the Devils Garden Wild Horse population and estimated herd size at 500 animals. The Modoc began contracting capture of excess horses in 1976. About 260 excess horses were removed during the period 1976-1978. Even with this effort, by 1979, the population had doubled to 1000 animals. This prompted the Modoc to enter into an agreement with BLM's Susanville District. BLM's expertise, coupled with the use of helicopter to locate and assist in moving the horses resulted in removing 388 excess horses in 1979. Our cooperative arrangement with BLM continues today.
Major challenges face the Modoc National Forest in managing the Devils Garden Wild Horse Territory. The program costs have skyrocketed from about $350/horse for capture & adoption in 1990 to over $1500/horse in 2002.
Since 1985, BLM has gathered about 60 horses from the Modoc annually. In 1990 our spring census indicated that herd size had jumped markedly as a result of a series of mild winters, less than normal death loss, and a foal crop of about 20% rather than the predicted 15%. Herd size was estimated at 469 horses and mules. A major commitment to reduce the population toward established herd size was made in 1991, by gathering 275 head of horses in September 1991. More than 90 horses aged five and over were returned to the Forest.
During the winter of 1992-93, higher than normal winter snow pack and longer winter cold months resulted in a large die off of the very young and old horses across the territory. Population estimates the spring of 1993 indicated we had around 200 horses.
Based on previous years herd records, we felt it was best to allow the herd to repopulate itself rather than introduce new horses from the Nevada herds. We estimated the herd could reach herd goal size within 5 years. But the die off resulted in the average age of the herd to change from 15 to 7, resulting in offspring production doubling and reaching the herd goal in 3 years. Herd foal crop is now about 40% and recruitment is around 30%. Continuing funding at the 1991 base rate has not allowed us to keep up with the herd expansion.
Beginning in 2002, based on actual herd records and BLM wild horse population models, we are gathering more than 100 head annually. The present herd population is estimated over 700 head. The 2002 gather completed 10/02/02 removed 238 head. We expect 70% (160) head will meet the adoption criteria. The remaining horses will be return to the territory.
Changes in BLM policy have had the greatest influence on our program costs. In 1990, the BLM notified us that they would no longer be able to place un-adoptable horses in sanctuaries. At that time more than 30,000 un-adoptable horses were being cared for nationally in wild horse sanctuaries, at of cost of over $1.5 million annually.
National policy and direction changed to phase out the sanctuaries and place only those horses, which were most adoptable into the program. A review of BLM’s records showed major reduction in horse adoptability after the age of 5 years. This had a significant influence on the Modoc's program because BLM statistics (pre-1990) indicate that about half of the horses gathered from the Modoc have been adoptable while remaining horses have been placed in Wild Horse sanctuaries or in Prison training programs.
Today the Devil’s Garden Horses are one of the most sought after horses in the BLM’s adoption program. Most the horses (Devil’s Garden RD) are classified as light draft and are a favorite with the Omish, packers, and wagon users. The finer boned horses (Doublehead RD) are popular with the endurance and working stock equestrian user. For the most part, our horses are in the best condition of those, which go through the adoption program.