HEBER/OVERGAARD – Eight more horses from the Heber Wild Horse herd were found dead on the Black Mesa Ranger District of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests on Friday, Jan. 10 according to a news release issued by the Forest Service on Saturday. “Preliminary information indicated the horses’ deaths were caused by gunshot wounds,” confirms the release.
The horses were also said to be found “outside of the Heber Wild Horse Territory,” but the exact location where the horses were found was not identified. At this time, it is unclear if the eight horses were part of one band or how long they had been dead.
This brings the total of horses found dead since 2018 to 27. Based on Saturday’s press release and the ones issued last spring by the Forest Service, the bodies of 19 Heber Wild Horses contain evidence of gunshot wounds.
Some of those found last year were “too severely decomposed to determine the cause of death and one was found to have died of a possible motor vehicle collision,” according to the 2019 press releases.
In addition to the confirmed Heber Wild Horse deaths on the south side of SR260, two domestic horses were found shot on Sept. 30, 2019 near Pinedale on the north side of SR260. Since the horses were privately owned, Navajo County Sheriff’s Office responded, investigated and arrested 19-year old Ryland Haynes of Lakeside on October 18, 2019.
It is unknown if this incident and arrest are related to the killings of the Heber Wild Horses.
Now the public wants to know, when will it end? And, more importantly, what is the status of the investigation being conducted by the Law Enforcement Investigation (LEI) division of the US Forest Service?
Repeated inquiries to the Forest Service for updates return the same answer: “At this time, we do not have any additional details on the investigation that we can provide.”
Some community members have lost faith in the investigative process which has been compounded by the Forest Service despite Saturday’s press release asking “… the public to remain patient and to avoid the area during the ongoing investigation.”
“I am outraged to hear this news, as your agencies have failed miserably at investigating and arresting a person or persons responsible for the prior shootings of wild horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest,” writes Kathie Reidhead of Payson in an email to the Forest Service and NCSO.
Reidhead reported witnessing an individual shooting towards the horses last summer while she was taking pictures of the Heber Wild Horses on national forest lands. She claims that, to date, she “was never contacted by anyone at USFS for an interview.”
“A very sick individual is on the loose, stalking and killing wild horses and it is very concerning because public safety is at risk too,” she adds. “In the incident I witnessed on May 2, 2019, I could have been shot as well.”
Saturday’s USFS press release states “The Forest Service law enforcement and equine experts, in partnership with the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office are investigating the deaths of the horses.” On Monday, NCSO officials confirmed they were not dispatched to the scene but would support the USFS investigation as needed.
The Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance (a.k.a. Heber Wild Horses) is a grassroots advocacy group based in Heber-Overgaard who have kept tabs on the federally protected herd for decades.
They were the first to report horses that appeared to have been shot in the forest – the first being two stallions found in October 2018.
The group routinely tracks and observes the Heber Wild Horses and various members have discovered the bodies of other Heber Wild Horses between October 2018 and April 2019. However, they were not aware of the most recent incident in which eight horses were discovered with evidence of gunshot wounds. They only became aware by means of Saturday’s press release.
“What will it take for the Forest Service to take the shootings of Federally protected Heber wild horses seriously?” posted the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance on their Facebook page on Saturday. “Will they bother to interview people who call in tips this year? They didn’t bother to contact tipsters from last year’s killing spree.”
The Independent briefly spoke to Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor’s Office Information Assistant Steven Johnson on Monday morning to ask for more details about where the horses were found, who found the bodies and whether they appeared to be of the same band.
Johnson said he and the Forest Service press team were sorting through multiple national, state and local media inquiries and compiling answers but did not have that information by press time.
It should also be noted that the Heber Wild Horses are protected whether they are inside or outside of the designated territory.
“The 16 U.S. Code § 1338 criminal provisions state ‘Any person who maliciously causes the death or harassment of any wild free-roaming horse or burro shall be subject to a fine of not more than $2,000, or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both,’” states Saturday’s press release.
If the public encounters an injured or deceased horse, please contact the Black Mesa Ranger District at 928-535-7300 to report it immediately.