A bipartisan group of lawmakers pressured the Agriculture Department today over concerns that the Forest Service could sell dozens of wild horses it's holding at California's Modoc National Forest without first ensuring the purchased animals don't end up in foreign slaughterhouses. Congress has placed restrictions on what the Interior Department and its sub-agencies can do with the West's surplus of wild horses, but not USDA. Now, a group of 64 members of Congress is concerned that the Forest Service could begin the sale of as many as 165 wild horses without restrictions as early as this month.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) organized the letter-writing campaign. Lawmakers signing the letter include House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Paul Cook (R-Calif.), Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.).
"The Forest Service's proposal would put wild horses at risk of being killed for food, and goes against California's existing law prohibiting the sale or transfer of horses for human consumption," the letter says.
It's not clear if the Forest Service intends to sell any of the wild horses rounded up and removed from the national forest last fall. A spokeswoman could not be reached for comment. About 250 horses that were rounded up last fall were transferred to newly built corrals — called the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals — on the Modoc site. The Forest Service has said it is considering selling horses that it can't adopt out, and doing so without restrictions on what the buyer is allowed to do with the horses.
These plans were revealed in court filings by Justice Department attorneys defending the Forest Service against a federal lawsuit by advocacy groups challenging last fall's roundup of wild horses and burros.DOJ attorneys argued in one filing, dated Dec. 20, 2018, that the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 "expressly allows" the agency to sell unadopted animals without limitation.
For all practical purposes, that means "the purchaser does not have to certify the uses of the horses," according to the motion opposing a request by animal rights groups that the court issue an injunction against the sale of any of the rounded-up horses. A hearing on that preliminary injunction request before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California is set for this week.
DOJ says in the motion that the Forest Service "would not knowingly sell a horse that goes to slaughter for human consumption." But if the horses cannot be adopted, it says, the service may have to resort to the sale without restrictions. Congress for years has added provisions to Interior Department appropriations bills that forbid the Bureau of Land Management from using euthanasia on healthy horses and burros, and limit its ability to sell animals without restrictions on their future use. But the appropriations language covers only Interior, and thus BLM; the Forest Service operates under the Department of Agriculture.Regardless, the letter signed by the 64 lawmakers says that the appropriations language makes the intent of Congress "abundantly clear."
"To our knowledge, the Forest Service has never attempted to sell wild horses under its authority without restrictions on slaughter," the letter says. "Rather, the agency has abided by the Interior appropriations language and Congress's clear position regarding the humane and appropriate management of federally-protected wild horses."