Animal and environmental advocates have filed legal action in a bid to stop the US Forest Service from removing wild horses from a reserve area in northeast California.
The suit was filed on Monday in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
It aims to stop the Forest Service from a plan which it says will eliminate thousands of acres of protected territory, and see up to 80 per cent of the wild horses removed from the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory in northeast California’s Modoc National Forest.
The lawsuit asserts that the Forest Service’s decision violates federal animal protection and environmental laws. It alleges the plan unlawfully prioritizes ranchers and privately owned livestock above federally protected wild horses.
The case was filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund with co-counsel from the Los Angeles-based law firm Caldwell Leslie and the DC public interest environmental law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, Return to Freedom, and an individual California resident.
In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which requires preservation of rangelands on which wild horses exist.
Devil’s Garden is officially designated as wild horse territory managed by the Forest Service (a division of the US Department of Agriculture), which has been the homeland of wild horses for at least 150 years.
In August 2013, the Forest Service authorized a decision that will eliminate more than 25,000 acres of wild horse territory and reduce the wild horse population by 80 percent.
The lawuit alleged the Forest Service failed to study the impact of privately owned cattle and sheep who graze in the Devil’s Garden and outnumber wild horses by as much as eightfold over the summer.
It alleges the Forest Service also failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, or formally amend its governing land and resource management plan, despite the significant change in the environmental and legal status quo, as required by the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Forest Management Act.
“Americans depend on federal agencies to manage public lands for all; instead the Forest Service is protecting the private interests of ranchers over all others,” said Animal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells.
“Wild horses have a legal right to remain in territories designated and protected by acts of Congress.”
The chief executive of Return to Freedom, Neda DeMayo, said Devil’s Garden remained the last large wild horse territory in California.
“Not only will these changes negatively impact wild horses in Devil’s Garden, but it also raises serious concerns about the long-term genetic viability of these wild horse bands.”