As a winter storm rolled into the White Mountains just before the dawning of the new year, authorities discovered three wild horses shot dead in the Black Mesa Ranger District — the latest round of horse killings that have occurred around this time of year in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest over the past two years.
All three horses found on Thursday, Dec. 30, had evidence of bullet wounds, indicating that they had been shot with a firearm, according to a press release issued by the US Forest Service.
“The Forest Service is using all the resources at the agency’s disposal to investigate and put a halt to these destructive actions,” said Richard Madril, District Ranger for the Black Mesa Ranger District. “Our efforts are led by the work of our law enforcement officers, working hand in hand with the public. We believe that the people can help us get to the bottom of what has happened.”
The horse bands aren’t the only ones at risk because of the killings. Bald eagles have been observed feeding on the carcasses, which may put them and other scavengers at risk of death from lead poisoning from bullet fragments. Lead from bullets are affecting larger bird species, including bald eagles and vultures.
Although the number has not been confirmed by the Forest Service or law enforcement, the murders of three more Heber wild horses means that more than 30 horses have reportedly been shot and killed in ASNF in recent years. In January 2020, reports indicated that 15 horses that made up two family bands of stallions, mares and foals were found shot to death. And again in January 2021, four more horses were found dead of gunshot wounds; a foal at the location was injured also and had to be euthanized.
Horse advocates and those who are regularly out in forest to monitor or photograph the horses believe that the killings are occurring when there is a window of opportunity for someone — or more than one person — to go into the forest and shoot the horses without being observed because fewer people are out there when it’s cold or the weather is bad.
Could the killer be a seasonal visitor, acting alone or with others during fall and winter months?
Locals don’t think so, believing that whoever is committing these killings against federally protected horses is someone who is also local — somebody who knows the forest well and is very familiar with the service roads that run through the forest.
Although the pro-horse public appears to be sickened by these killings, as evidenced by their comments on the ASNF Facebook page announcing the shootings, those who believe the wild horse populations are too large to be sustained by the land on which they live advocate for “culling the herds,” much the way that deer and elk populations are thinned.
“We have sound management programs for big game hunting that includes pronghorn and bighorn sheep that only allow a single tag in a lifetime. There’s no reason why we can’t have the same for wild horses and burros,” wrote a user who goes by the name of Arizona Backcountry Explorers.
The Forest Service is working with the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the killings, but officials have been tight-lipped with information.
“Saying ‘We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation’ over and over gives me heartburn,” said Jeffrey Todd, Forest Public Affairs Officer with ASNF, adding. “I want this/these criminal(s) caught and brought to justice.”
Other than saying that the dead horses underwent necropsies and the carcasses were buried, Todd said he was unable to comment on the location where the horses were found, what type of evidence might have been recovered at the scene or what tips they’ve received from the public.
Officials are asking anyone with information to contact them by calling 928-524-4050. A $10,000 reward is being offered for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for these acts of violence.