A federal court ruling has effectively reinstated about 23,000 acres as wild horse territory in California’s Modoc National Forest despite local ranchers’ objections.
When the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory was originally created by the U.S. Forest Service in 1975, it consisted of 236,000 acres divided into two tracts.
However, in the 1980s, an agency map connected those two swaths of land with a 23,000-acre “middle section” that was later included in a forest management plan.
In 2013, the Forest Service decided that including the “middle section” in the map was an “administrative error” and excluded that area from the wild horse territory.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a nonprofit group, filed a lawsuit alleging the change violated horse protection, forest management and environmental laws.
The California Cattlemen’s Association and other groups intervened in the litigation on behalf of local ranchers who have grazing allotments in the area.
Rangeland in the “middle section” has been “rendered nearly unusable by wild horses,” which overgraze vegetation, trample waterways, destroy fencing and migrate onto private property, the intervenors said.
A federal judge dismissed the case in 2015, ruling that the boundary correction wasn’t “arbitrary and capricious” because the “middle section” was never formally incorporated into the wild horse territory.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has now reversed that decision and overturned the Forest Service’s exclusion of the 23,000 acres from the territory.
“A 23,000 acre tract of land and two decades of agency management cannot be swept under the rug as a mere administrative mistake,” the ruling said.
According to the appeals court, the Forest Service violated administrative law by failing to “adequately explain its change in policy” and not considering whether removing the “middle section” required a comprehensive environmental analysis.
The agency’s defense that the 23,000 acres were never formally part of the wild horse territory is undermined by its forest management plan, official statements and two decades of agency practice, the court said.
“Blinders may work for horses, but they are no good for administrative agencies,” the ruling said.
Although the Forest Service didn’t follow the correct legal procedures for enlarging the wild horse territory, that doesn’t mean the expansion didn’t occur in reality, the ruling said.
“The Service’s assumption that a purported past mistake would excuse the agency’s current missteps is wrong,” according the court.
The agency can revert to managing the wild horse territory as two separate tracts, but it must first adequately explain its reasons for changing course instead of simply eliminating the “middle section,” the ruling said.
“The Service’s attempt to slam shut the barn door after the horse already bolted is not sufficient,” the ruling said.