Wild Horse Education

Devils Garden; Phase 2

This two part article by Elyse Gardner Walsh is an update, personal observation and review pertaining to capture, communication and handling. This article compares BLM post capture protocol with what Forest Service is doing at “Double Devil.”

The adoption/sale event at Double Devil in Alturas CA is scheduled for Nov. 16 and 17. (Phase 1: Roundup, Phase 2: Holding, Phase 3: Adoption…) 

We realize this is a long article. We tried to cover many areas of concern (including emails we are receiving about the wild horses that are in BLM care that appear to be part of a wave of misinformation) with more than just a “line.” NOTE that the horses that went into BLM care at Litchfield are referred to as “the same as all BLM wild horses in holding” by BLM national office. This is in direct contradiction to much of what is flying around the internet. 


Part One: Devils Garden Phase 2

As of November 8, 2018, the helicopter has landed, and the 2018 roundup of 932 wild horses formerly living in the rock-laden, forested land aptly known as Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory is finished.  This area is in uppermost northeastern California, tucked just south of the Oregon and northwestern Nevada borders. Although I saw some bad leg injuries in the Double Devil Corrals as it filled up with these horses, I am amazed at how few injuries from these rocks there actually were.  These horses are amazing.


The geology of this area is truly remarkable.  Immense lava flows millions of years old have hardened into giant boulders making sections of this 308,300 acres of land challenging to farm and treacherous to traverse, yet it is a historically rich grazing bonanza, currently permitted for 4,480 cow/calf pairs over a 6-month grazing season. By comparison, the Forest Service has set an Appropriate Management Level (“AML”) of a maximum of 402 wild horses.


Before I give my report, I want to be clear that the entire accountability for this gather operation goes to the U.S. Forest Service.  The Devil’s Garden gather operation was planned and executed by the (Modoc County) U.S. Forest Service, which operates under the Department of Agriculture.  Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) operates under the Department of the Interior.  You can see in the below chart that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior are two separate and distinct federal departments.



Reiterating, the BLM is not responsible for any of the decisions made nor deeds done in this Devil’s Garden operation. Yet BLM described to me the barrage of public anger they’re getting about this Devil’s Garden roundup, so I want to clarify one more time:  the Devil’s Garden wild horse gather is a 100 percent Forest Service operation; it is not a BLM event. Some of the feedback we are getting demonstrates there is still confusion. 

BLM has stepped in to help place 652 of the wild horses taken from Devil’s Garden (“DG”).  Those 652 Devil’s Garden horses have been sent to the BLM Litchfield Corrals, a one-hour drive going south from Alturas on Highway 395.  The horses at the BLM Litchfield Corrals are having a very different experience than the Devil’s Garden horses still in Alturas at the Double Devil holding corrals.


As newly captured younger horses from Devil’s Garden were daily being sent to BLM’s Litchfield Corrals, they had time to settle. I spoke with BLM Litchfield Corrals Manager Doug Satica and other corral staff who explained that facility policy is to not do both intake and adopt out or sell horses simultaneously. (“Intake” means processing newly captured horses by sending them through the squeeze chute where wranglers and a vet can brand the horse, put tags on their necks, “age” them by checking their teeth, give them dewormer, and give them their first inoculations.)  Also, when Litchfield is receiving horses, they stop processing horses to adopt out until they finish receiving. Additionally, however, Litchfield has another reason to postpone some of the adoption preparations for the Devil’s Garden horses.



Per the Modoc Forest Service Gather Report of November 3, 2018, a horse tested positive for pigeon fever on October 26.  I’ve provided a link to an informative article on pigeon fever, which is seldom fatal. It is a highly contagious bacterial infection that has an incubation period up to four weeks long.  This unpleasant disease generally results in large pus-filled abscesses which burst, usually heal up, and the horse recovers.  It must run its course, which can take weeks or months, depending on the horse.

Pigeon fever is spread and carried by flies. They aren’t the source, but they are carriers. It also can be spread horse to horse, or by horse’s direct contact with the bacteria. Perhaps a trailer is carrying the bacteria from a previous load of horses, so the next load(s) of horses are then exposed.  The bacteria are known to survive for weeks in hay and soil.

The Forest Service November 3 gather updates states that on that day, “to protect the herd” the Forest Service killed a total of 7 horses who were showing symptoms of pigeon fever. I have never before heard of anyone executing horses for contracting or possibly contracting pigeon fever. Did a licensed vet actually recommend killing those horses? 

Vets and horsepeople I know understand that that the disease isn’t confined merely to the horses showing symptoms.  A four-week incubation period means that for up to four weeks, an animal may be invisibly harboring the disease before symptoms appear. People also understand that pigeon fever is a bacterial infection from which horses generally recover.

Is this really what we want to teach our children, that it is okay to destroy an animal to avoid the inconvenience of treating an illness?  What kind of respect for life does this convey? 

In a wild horse sanctuary in which I worked, I helped feed a pasture housing 22 wild horses, several of whom were recovering from pigeon fever. Their pasture was a “quarantined” area. We took precautions to plastic-bag-cover our boots and to spray down with bleach solution any equipment we used that made contact with horses or soil.   Those quarantine measures sufficed nicely in preventing any spread of the disease. It was cold enough that flies weren’t an issue. 

Of concern is the fact that Forest Service is not talking about this at all.  No mention of pigeon fever is made by Forest Service in any of their following gather updates; therefore, no suggested precautions are being made.  During the tours of the Double Devil corrals, Forest Service personnel never mentioned pigeon fever nor precautions therefrom.  Modoc Forest Service continues to advertise its upcoming adoption/sale event on November 16 and 17.


Wild horses recently captured at Forest Services Devils Garden now at the BLM  Litchfield corrals.  They will be ready for adoption in December.


BLM Litchfield’s Manager Doug Satica is aware of the horse in Alturas who tested positive for pigeon fever, so he presently has the Litchfield Corrals following his standard protocol for exposure to pigeon fever.  He called it a “soft shutdown.”  This means other than the horses that continued arriving daily from Devil’s Garden, no other horses were/are coming into the Litchfield Corrals.  And until the potential four-week incubation period for pigeon fever passes, no horses will be adopted out or sold; i.e., no horse will leave the facility.


In addition to the “soft shutdown,” Doug Satica stated that he will not authorize gelding at Litchfield to begin until the four-week pigeon fever incubation period has passed starting from November 8, the last day of capture.  His phrase, when I asked when he gelds wild horses, was that he and his vet “wait till horses are healthy enough” for gelding. I understood him to mean that time is needed after any gather for roundup related stress and/or injuries to settle out and heal.

Doug had also stated he likes to let horses settle down and put some weight on if needed.  These statements reflect an understanding that helicopter gathers are stressful for horses and that each horse needs to be strong and in good flesh to set that horse up for a good result. Although gelding is a commonplace occurrence, the high stress on the horse should not be underestimated.


I asked Doug specifically how long he waits after gelding before adopting a horse out, i.e., actually putting the horse on a trailer to leave Litchfield.  “Minimum two weeks,” came the simple answer. 

Freshly gelded horses need medical oversight, and they need mild but regular exercise to help fend off excessive swelling. BLM has alleys between the pens, and the wranglers slowly drive all the newly gelded horses through the alleys to give them low-stress exercise.  If complications like infection develop, BLM has the means to administer antibiotics and otherwise treat wild horses (the squeeze chute; sick pens; on-call vet), whose wildness upon arrival would likely present discouraging, insurmountable challenges to new owners. 

In their post-gelding protocol, BLM sets horses and adopters up for success by not sending a horse home with an adopter who can’t possibly help him if post-castration healing isn’t textbook perfect.

I appreciate Doug Satica’s forthright responses to my questions about the way he runs Litchfield Corrals.  He gave me straight answers and neither criticized nor endorsed anyone else’s policies.  We can all just observe that the facts speak for themselves.


Is this underweight stallion in the Double Devil Corrals “healthy enough” to geld? He is within that four-week incubation period after possible Pigeon Fever exposure. If he were at Litchfield, under BLM’s protocol he would have time to wait out the four weeks and put on some needed weight to get through gelding and face the frigid winter. But he is at Double Devil Corral in Forest Service hands, and Forest Service is on a runaway fast-tracking train

The general consensus among veterinarians regarding gelding is that the older a stallion is, the riskier and harder it is on the horse (see attached Davis Report (Gelding)). Gelding wild horses is particularly stressful and challenging in view of their panic if they cannot ambulate (walk about, move) effectively as soon as they are able to stand.  It is only logical that care should be taken to see that these older stallions are restored to sound fitness and full strength, and past any pigeon fever incubation period before they have their date with the Henderson castration tool. Gelding the stallions at Litchfield won’t begin until early December.


The Forest Service plan was to start gelding horses at the Double Devil Corrals immediately upon the end of capture operations, as early as November 9, in order to get all the horses ready for the big adoption event starting November 16.  The last day of capture operations was November 8. 

Immediately gelding recently captured horses in the presence of the pigeon fever bacteria increases their risk of infection, adds stress, and taxes reserve strength.


Of even greater concern, Forest Service only just began gelding on November 9.  The Devil’s Garden adoption/sale event remains immutably set for November 16. 

Horses gelded mere days before the sale on November 16 will be sorted and loaded, still swollen and vulnerable to infection or bleeding.  They will be sent home with people unable to approach them or render any medical aid. Contrasted with BLM’s policy of a minimum two-week healing period, this plan stands starkly out as a poorly planned operation done disregarding the impacts on the horses.

In my opinion this rushed plan is unnecessary and arguably inhumane.

This is not a setup for success for horse or human.


The veterinary practice I consulted said gelding during a possible pigeon fever incubation period is asking for trouble. Since recent wounds attract flies, a “freshly gelded horse is wearing a fly-sized ‘Picnic Here’ sign.” Since flies could well be carrying the pigeon fever bacteria, prudence dictates waiting for the incubation period to pass before gelding.  Since we have had some freezing nights, the risk from flies is decreased, but flies are not the only way pigeon fever is transmitted. (See attached article, link provided.)

(2) “Healthy enough to geld”: Horses still bear visible injuries and were often agitated in the pens when last I saw them on November 4.  Whether they “came in” (into the trap pen) injured or sustained injuries in the trailer, or at the holding facility, time to settle and heal would benefit them.

New stallions were being added each day to the two big stallion pens at Double Devil Corrals, so squabbles continued as the horses continued to be agitated and get bruised up since with each new addition to the pens, a hierarchy (pecking order) has to be established.  It is the horses’ way.

The vet office I consulted stated unless it was a life or death matter, they simply would not geld animals during a possible incubation period for pigeon fever. 



BLM personnel with whom I spoke expressed surprised to learn about Forest Service’s microchip-but-no-brand plan. This means no visual evidence will alert a viewer that they are looking at a wild horse from America’s public lands.  Freeze brands are a nice layer of protection for wild horses.  They immediately identify that animal as a mustang. They include the year estimated as the horse’s birthdate, the State from which a horse came, and a unique 4-digit “tag” number.  Freeze brands are distinctive, and anyone can tell at a glimpse that a horse is a wild horse. 

The Devil’s Garden horses will have no such freeze brand. If/when they end up on in an auction or kill-lot, people looking to help mustangs will have no visual cue that this is a wild horse.  At least one BLM employee had a hard time disguising what I describe as consternation over Forest Service not branding the horses although the only thing they squeaked out was, “Oh, really? I didn’t know that.”

BLM, on the other hand, will be freeze-branding the Devil’s Garden horses now at Litchfield Corrals.  These horses are now, for all intents and purposes, BLM horses. Alan Shepherd, National On-Range Wild Horse and Burro Program lead, has confirmed to Wild Horse Education that even if these Devil’s Garden horses become “three strikes” horses that are sale-without-limitation-eligible, they will remain under BLM jurisdiction and be treated as BLM horses. They are not going back to the Forest Service.  I’ve read statements by other advocacy groups stating that the horses at Litchfield will be returned or could be returned to Forest Service if they become “three strikes” horses, but the Devil’s Garden horses are in fact staying with BLM.

So if you are coming to get a horse, animals from Double Devil Corrals will not have a brand as depicted in these photographs. Many people want “the brand,” but we urge you to go forward with giving these horses from the Double Devil Corrals a home because they are even more vulnerable to the slaughter pipeline without the brand.

When last I saw them on November 4 at the Double Devil Corrals in Alturas, numerous stallions, particularly the older ones, still bore visible injuries and remained agitated in the pens.  Can you give one or more of these boys a safe home?  I fear for the future of these older stallions.



Ken Sandusky said to me they were closing Double Devil Corrals to the public after November 4 so they could get the horses ready and he could, “…get my people trained.”  He said his people were “inexperienced” and “brand new at this,” and he was referring to handling the horses at Double Devil Corrals.

They won’t be “new” for long. It is my understanding Forest Service plans to gather at least 2,000 more Devil’s Garden horses in the next couple of years.  I hope they plan more carefully in the future. 

My report may sound critical because I observed much that for the horses’ sakes needs improvement, much that should not be repeated.  My intention is simply to make things better.

Whether due to inexperience or negligence, what matters is better planning, and that our national treasures, the wild horses, be treated with care, respect, and be protected from unnecessary pain and suffering. 
I wish great success in finding safe landings and good homes for all the Devil’s Garden horses.

For people planning to bring horses home, I observed that the horses are eating a nice looking grass hay at the Double Devil Corrals. No alfalfa is being fed.

I’ll be hauling horses for a wonderful woman giving an amazing home in pastures to four of these horses. With her permission, perhaps we can continue their story in the future. It would be great to share that with you.

Elyse Gardner Walsh


Part two will follow some of the younger Devil’s Garden wild horses into Litchfield. 

A roundup begins long before a helicopter flies. Help us build a strong frontline to fight against abuse and for their preservation in the wild and their habitat.




Categories: Wild Horse Education