The Modoc National Forest is home to the largest wild horse herd in California. There are an estimated 2,200 wild equines living within the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory, which comprises over 360 square miles of federally managed land in the northeast corner of the state.
The Devil’s Garden Plateau, also known as “The Smiles of Gods” by the Native people, lies in the heart of the Modoc Plateau. This mile-high prehistoric lava flow is sparsely vegetated with sagebrush flats, native grasses, and the nations largest expanse of juniper. Thought to have formed some 25 million years ago, the Modoc Plateau is a semi-arid region, covered with rough broken lava rock and covers approximately a half-million acres. While very dry most of the year, after the snow melts, the area is covered with hundreds of ephemeral pools and carpeted with wild flowers in the spring.
Further north, the dryness gives way to more pine forested areas, which host some of the largest mule deer in the region. The Garden is home to Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, turkeys, and sage grouse. It is also habitat for the gray wolf. The wild horse territory is overlapped by eight grazing allotments, which creates competition for forage and water. The plateau is part of the Pacific Flyway where hundreds of thousands of waterfowl stopover in the wetlands during their migration from Alaska and Canada to Mexico.
The Devil’s Garden horses are known around the country for the type of horses it produces. They even have a dedicated Facebook page. Wild horses, also called mustangs, are known for their sure-footedness, strength, intelligence, and endurance. Herds on the eastern side of the territory have some draft horse influence in their genes. The western herds have distinct characteristics some with a unique white coloring also known as roan and other herds that are mostly black. The horses arrived here140 years ago with early settlers and they have been legally protected since the passing of the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
In 2013 the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory Management Plan was updated and it set an “Appropriate Management Level” at a maximum of 402 horses. The evaluation used to determine this number did not take into account the over 1,500 cows grazing within the public lands of the wild horse territory. The updated plan also reduced the size of the territory by 37 square miles.
In late September the Modoc National Forest conducted a six-day helicopter roundup and captured 290 wild horses. The mustangs were gathered mainly from adjacent private land, Pit River Tribal land, but also within the boundary of the territory. The roundups started in the early morning to avoid running the horses down in the afternoon heat. Multiple sweeps would happen each day, brining in anywhere between 5-40 mustangs at a time.
Pressured by the low flying aircraft, the wild horses were herded and trapped into small pens. Soon after, the horses were brought to nearby Willow Creek Ranch, a historic property within the wild horse territory. There they were sorted by age and gender. At the end of each day, mustangs age five and under were shipped to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Litchfield Facility near Susanville, CA. A total of 200 horses were brought to Litchfield to be freeze branded, vaccinated, and put up for adoption.
Older equines, age six and up, not adopted that week were released back onto the wild horse territory. The total included 68 stallions and 1 mare. There were 20 older mares that received the PZP fertility control vaccine at the Litchfield Facility who were then shipped back and released. Any of the younger horses that are not adopted from BLM Litchfield Facility after nine months will also be released back onto the territory.
For more information about adopting a wild mustang from the Modoc National Forest’s Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory contact the BLM Litchfield Facility
Photos of Modoc wild horse roundup by Kimberly Baker:
Photos of horses in holding facility by Coni Lehr: