HEBER — On May 18, The Independent reported about the dire situation of 15 to 20 free-roaming horses on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests south of Heber that were struggling to find water because their traditional water holes had dried up.
Also known as the “Heber wild horses” and described by some as feral horses, this small herd is considered to be part of the 300-450 horse living throughout the ASNF that have been the subject of much controversy for several reasons.
The common cause
No one wants to see the horses suffer and die of thirst. So, by the end of May, a slew of agencies, advocates, non-profit organizations, local small businesses and private citizens had joined the common cause to bring water to these animals. There were boots-on-the-ground that had support all the way up to the Federal level.
The Heber Wild Horses Freedom Alliance and the Citizens Against Equine Slaughter with representation via Val Cecema-Hogsett of Oregon were one of the first to bring attention to the situation. The situation escalated when a horse reportedly died after getting stuck in a dried up waterhole. And others were on the edge of succumbing the same fate because fences blocked their egress to other water sources in the area.
The ASNF representatives, specifically the Black Mesa Ranger District, confirmed that all gates were open. However, open fence gates didn’t seem to resolve the issue because this particular herd was reportedly behind a fence with no gate opening within a reasonable distance.
As the weeks without rain persisted, a grassroots cooperative of sorts was assembled to bring water troughs and water to the horses. Some of the entities that volunteered to help were the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance, Citizens Against Equine Slaughter, the Gila Herd Foundation, Equine WellBeing Rescue, Inc., the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, Torreon Golf Course, Tractor Supply of Show Low, White Mountain Water Hauling of Clay Springs, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and private residents.
Robin Crawford, a private citizen who lives in Heber, held a critical role in organizing and facilitating those that were given permission to haul water into the forest.
How water was brought in
Due to the extreme risk of wildfire, it would not have been responsible to allow people unlimited or unmanaged access to the forest. For this reason, management within the forest, including Lakeside Ranger District Manger Ed Collins, arranged a vetting process by which some non-profit organizations like Equine WellBeing Rescue, Inc. were given a special permit to enter the closed forest specifically to bring in troughs and water for the horses.
The multi-group effort
Equine WellBeing Rescue, Inc. (EWBR), a horse rescue based in Snowlake, were one of several groups that collaborated to bring water into the forest for the horses. Christine Griffin, EWBR founder, shared some specifics about how the water troughs were obtained and transported.
“May 16, we started purchasing and placing water troughs on loan for Heber Wild Horses," explained Griffin. "We requested assistance from Tractor Supply Co. corporate office who donated a $600 gift certificate to purchase troughs. We took the $600 that certificate saved us and distributed $600 between the permittees delivering water to our troughs on loan to the Heber Wild Horses," further explained Griffin. “Each driver received $120 from us. We have six troughs with a water capacity of 2,100 gallons in the Overgaard area,” she added.
Much of the water hauling tasks were well organized and required a significant amount of planning and coordination between the Black Mesa and Lakeside Ranger Districts due to forest closures implemented in areas south of State Route 260. Both Districts include areas where this particular herd was residing.
In addition, Stage 2 Fire Restrictions were in also in effect which prohibited the use of motorized vehicles, generators and/or water pumps that have the potential to cause sparks.
Griffin shared additional information about some of the collaborative efforts that had taken place as of July 9. "Six large water troughs with a water capacity of 2,100 gallons each were brought to the Black Mesa Ranger District in the Overgaard area. Those troughs and others were filled as needed by the Heber Wild Horse volunteers as permittees approved by the Forest Service," said Griffin.
In addition, nine large water troughs with a water capacity of 2,600 gallons each were transported to the Lakeside Ranger District near Joe Tank Road and Torreon Golf Course in Show Low. These troughs were filled every four days by Lynn Pace of White Mountain Water Hauling added Griffin.
Griffin also clarified that, "Two large water troughs with a water capacity of 600 gallons were also placed on the White Mountain Apache Reservation forest in an area adjacent to Show Low. The troughs are filled as needed by Equine WellBeing Rescue, Inc. but are a separate endeavor than the Heber horses."
Overall, Equine Well Being Rescue, Inc. was involved with 18 large water troughs transported to the area. Griffin explained that some troughs were donated and some were purchased at a cost of $2,819.98. They had a 5,300 gallon per day water capacity and were on loan to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
“As a non-profit equine rescue, we have been answering the call for help where needed for wild horses and following our mission to provide loving care for equine in need,” says Christine Griffin, founder of Equine WellBeing Rescue, Inc. “We do not participate in any of the politics that may happen in any of these locations,” she added.
says Forest Service
“Most of the gates remain open on portions of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests south of the 260 highway where permitted livestock are currently not on the forest,” writes Steve Johnson, Information Assistant n the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, Supervisor’s Office. “Where livestock are on, the gates are closed to maintain livestock control, and water is available to the wildlife, livestock and the horses,” added Johnson.
Members of the Forest Services that worked side-by-side with the advocates, non-profits, local small businesses and residents reported positively. “It was a pleasure to work with Torreon residents, Christine Griffin of Equine WellBeing Rescue, and White Mountain Water Hauling to provide water to relieve the suffering of animals in this extreme drought,” says Ed Collins, Lakeside District Ranger. “They did not care if the animals were wildlife, horses, or cows. Their professionalism and enthusiasm was inspiring.”
“The arrival of summer rains has replenished some natural waterways and earthen stock tanks, however, there remains a short-term need to supply water for wildlife, livestock and horses in areas of the Lakeside and Black Mesa Ranger Districts that have yet to receive adequate precipitation,” says the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests website.
“The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests will continue to coordinate with the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance, the Gila Herd Foundation, Equine WellBeing Rescue Inc., private individuals and permittees to assess any water hauling needs going forward,” they say.
Also, based on additional moisture predictions, the Forest Service anticipated the need to haul water will end soon and the water tanks will be able to be removed.
“Given the recent moisture, forage conditions are expected to improve as warm-season perennial grasses begin to actively grow,” says the Forest Service. “Current forage conditions are better in the higher, cooler elevations along the rim.”
Finally, “It’s great to see our normal moisture regime return and the decrease of stress on the ecosystem,” says Richard Madril, Black Mesa District Ranger.
Some still express doubt
While Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES) expresses disappointment in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests’ effort and response, they still acknowledged the overall positive result. “So even though the Forest Service had no choice but to allow us to do their job and provide water where they knew horses were trapped without water because of livestock fencing (again illegal per the Taylor Grazing Act) and we have spent our time, funds and gas to do,” writes CAES advocate Val Cecama-Hogsett in an email to The Independent on July 10.
“They continue to push us and not really want to protect the horses, rather they placate us where they can but are realizing we know the laws, therefore are trying to shut us out where they can,” she adds.
On the flip side, Citizens Against Equine Slaughter says that they do have some good news from the water hauling project. “CAES was contacted by four of our other boots-on-the-ground or BoG teams about hauling water into their areas,” says Cecama-Hogsett.
“So we have started a program called Water for Western Wildlife (WWW) and that has really taken off as a grassroots, all volunteer-based program for people who can haul water in their areas to get some funding to cover the cost of water tanks and hauling water.”
She adds that the organization now has water going in five locations and in four different states. “...our next goal is to use WWW to provide some permanent water structures such as solar or windmills to provide water without hauling daily.”
What happens next?
Following the successful hauling of thousands of gallons of water for the horses and the arrival of the monsoons, the discussion must turn back to the original issue of how to allocate water and land in a way supports competing interests.
Horse advocate groups like the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES) consider the horses “wild” which means they would fall under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
Others consider the horses free-roaming but feral and have been described as a nuisance and a population that needs to be managed with that intent. Permittees that lease land from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for their cattle, for example, are greatly impacted by the horses grazing on the same land and utilizing the same water sources. This includes water that they have historically hauled for their cattle.
A free-roaming horse management plan is in the works but seems no closer to a drafted document. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is one of the agencies at the table with the horse advocates, although they are not responsible for managing the horses as they are not considered wildlife. State universities are also involved along with the Forest Service and horse advocate groups such as the Gila Herd Foundation.
Meanwhile, the ranchers or permittees that pay for the use of Forest Service land remain in the background, frustrated with the bureaucracy. The Independent has made contact with some local ranchers and will be sharing their side in upcoming editions.