The United States Forest Service is entering the final stages of its plans to remove, or sterilize, more than 300 wild horses near Heber in eastern Arizona, giving the community less than a month to weigh in on the decision.
As the only horses in the state with their own dedicated territory established in 1973, the Heber horse herd was placed under a federal court order of protection in 2005. They are protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971, but a 47-page management plan from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests proposes a reduction in the size of the herd from about 420 horses to no more than 104.
This isn’t the first time the ASNF has attempted to remove the herd. The Navajo Board of Supervisors said in 2005, based on concerns that the increased number of free-ranging horses was adversely impacting the recovery of the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned lands, personnel advertised a contract to remove livestock that were accessing the fire-damaged area, according to a March 2020 statement.
“The number of horses posed a threat of resource damage to burned areas recovering from the fires, the horses created conflicts with other landowners and users of the Forest lands,” the ASNF wrote on its website.
However, a lawsuit was filed and forest officials were restricted from proceeding with any gathering of horses.
The 2021 draft plan states officials would instead manage herd growth by giving female horses contraceptives and gelding wild males. The forest service has been adamant killing horses is not part of their plan, but the draft does include guidelines for the use of euthanasia, such as capturing an injured horse.
“The proposed action is designed to foster a self-sustaining population of healthy animals within the designated territory, in a thriving natural ecological balance as part of a functioning ecosystem with other ecological values, land management uses, and within the productive capacity of their habitat,” the forest service said in a statement.
From March 23 to April 22, the plan was in a 30-day objection period, meaning the public has an opportunity to comment on the plan before it’s finalized.
As of Friday, there are more than 1,200 open letter submissions, a majority asking the horses be left alone.
“We have plenty of land to share here with OUR Wildlife. I’m ashamed of our Forest Service here in Arizona at this point with everything that is going on,” one wrote. “Shameful.”
“The number of horses you plan to leave is too small for them to survive there and your calculations do not take in account all the land the horses use including reservation land. Please stop pleasing only special interests and do what is best for wildlife, wild places and Americans,” wrote another.
Robert Hutchison, an Arizona horseman who has advocated for the herd for more than 30 years, told The Arizona Republic he believes the plan to minimize the herd is “sick and twisted.”
“These horses have enemies all over, people who want to do them harm,” Hutchison said. “These agencies have control over every blade of grass and every drop of water. They will destroy the herd and the minute they are gone, they will move on to something else.”
Hutchison said he has lost trust in the ASNF over the years, citing the long string of horse deaths that have yet to result in an arrest. Forest officials confirmed in a Jan. 13 press release the deaths of four horses with bullet wounds: three adults — including a pregnant mare — and one foal.
In 2020, 15 deceased horses were found between Jan. 9 and 14, several of which were confirmed to have died due to bullet wounds. Two separate family units died. Eight more were too far decomposed to determine. Many more horses met the same fate in 2018 and 2019, when 11 horses were found with gunshot wounds between Oct. 2018 and June 2019.
The shootings have ranged from random to killing entire family units, said local horse advocate Robin Crawford of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance in 2020.
“There’s no conviction — nothing,” he said. “It’s all supposed to remain hidden. I don’t think anyone can blame me for thinking the timing of this plan and the timing of these murders might not be a coincidence.”
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In a statement, Gayle Hunt, president of the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition, said “the horrifyingly high number” of murdered Heber wild horses is “reflective of entrenched local attitudes.”
“…when the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests failed to conduct substantive investigations until forced by Congressional intervention, it suggests a systemic disregard for the welfare of these horses and casts doubt upon the accuracy with which the Forest(s) drew Territory boundaries and truthfully counted resident horses in 1974,” the statement said.