UPDATE 2/1, 3 p.m.: The bodies of two more dead horses from the Heber Wild Horse herd were found today in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests east of Heber.

The discovery was made this morning by members of the Heber Wild Horses group and immediately reported to the U.S. Forest Service via phone.

Witnesses told the Independent via phone that they believe both horses may have died at an earlier date, however, this information has not been confirmed by the Forest Service or any other investigating agency.

The Independent was able to confirm with Forest Service authorities that a Forest Service Deputy and a veterinary expert are currently on scene actively investigating.

More information will be provided as it becomes available.

ORIGINAL STORY 2/1: The bodies of bloated, picked apart and scavenged horse carcasses are piling up in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and the public wants to know why.

Since two dead stallions were found, seven more horses have been found dead in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, east of Heber-Overgaard.

Several of the dead horses have been discovered by members of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance (a.k.a. Heber Wild Horses).

Since October, the non-profit group that operates under Citizens Against Equine Slaughter, has asked, pleaded and demanded answers from the Forest Service because it is their jurisdiction.

Heber Wild Horses and CAES have requested updates about the status of the ongoing investigation(s) since last year. They have also asked if necropsies would be performed on the horses to determine the cause of death. They have also asked for bullets to be removed from the horses in an effort to preserve evidence and to apprehend whomever may be killing the federally protected animals.

Answers have yet to be provided.

In the interim, the government shutdown complicated matters because only “necessary” Forest Service personnel were on duty to respond to calls to the dispatch line. As a result, dead horses found on January 22, were reported to the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office which were, in turn, referred to the Forest Service.

Still, no answers.

The carcasses of seven dead horses and two skeletons have been found since October 2018, and reported to the Forest Service and the Navajo County Sheriff’s department.

Horse advocacy groups and others following the incidents feel certain that the horses have all been shot dead. “Law enforcement retrieved shell casings from one of the scenes they attended over the weekend,” said Val Cecema-Hogsett of Citizens Against Equine Slaughter in a phone interview with the Independent on January 30.

Despite what appear to be bullet holes in several of the carcasses, there has been no confirmation from the Forest Service or other law enforcement agency as to the cause of death.

“We understand very clearly that shell casings don’t prove that the horses were shot,” says Cecema-Hogsett. “We also realize that, if bullets were retrieved from the dead horses, they may or may not match those shell casings but it’s a start.”

Requests for information from state and local media, area residents and the horse advocate groups about when, or if, necropsies will be performed on the dead horses remain unanswered by the Forest Service.

In the case of the black stallion and bay mare found on January 22, members of the Heber Wild Horses group stayed at the scene overnight waiting for someone to arrive to “remove the bullets.”

Boots-on-the-ground members of Heber Wild Horses have also gathered pages and pages of information documenting what they feel is “suspicious activity” in the forest prior to finding the dead horses.

They say they have attempted to share this information with the Forest Service to no avail. “We have over three dozen tips that have been called into us but the Forest Service has not taken them,” explains Cecema-Hogsett. “I was told by the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office that the Forest Service was the lead agency and I needed to contact them regarding the tips. When I call Forest Service dispatch, I am told that they will ‘pass it on’ but I have yet to receive a call from Investigator John Lopez or any other member of the Forest Service.”

“How do we get these tips to them?,” she continues to ask.

Meanwhile, members of state and local media, area residents, the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter continue to try and escalate the issue to outside agencies including the Phoenix office of the FBI and congressmen Raul Grijalva and Tom O’Halleran.

“The USDA Forest Service is conducting an investigation on the incident. Whenever the Forest Service has personnel investigating an active case, no information will be released so the integrity of the investigation isn’t compromised,” writes USDA Forest Service Regional Media Relations Office in a January 29, email to the Independent following multiple requests for a press release.

Members of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance, (a.k.a. Heber Wild Horses group), began as casual observers of the protected herd but some members have taken on a watchdog role. “Someone is out there shooting these horses and it’s escalated to becoming a matter of public safety,” says Cecema-Hogsett.

“Some of the horses that appear to have been shot were found less than one quarter mile from SR260 which is a major highway,” says Stacy L. Sanchez of Overgaard. Sanchez, who is an active member of Heber Wild Horses, is familiar with the bands of horse and their movements. As such he has found several of the dead horses and adds that, “one of the dead horses was less than 400 yards from some of the Bison Ranch buildings.”

The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests are open to the public for more than just observing the free-roaming horses, point out horse advocates.

Are people that hike, horseback ride, mountain bike, ride all-terrain vehicles, birdwatch, explore or photograph nature now at risk in the forest, they ask.

The Navajo County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO) has been more forthcoming with information but is squelched by protocol and continues to remind the public that the U.S. Forest Service is the lead agency in the investigation.

On January 29, NCSO posted a message on its social media page stating that they had met with the Forest Service “in reference to the recent deaths of (7) horses in the Heber area.”

“At this point in the investigation the lead investigating agency will be the National Forest Service and the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office will be sharing information and assisting their agency as the information is received and provided to the Sheriff’s Office,” reads the post.

“At this time in respect for the agency investigating the death of these horses the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office is not at liberty to comment on an ongoing case for another agency.”

The public is still encouraged to call the WeTip Hotline at 1-800-78-CRIME to report information about the horse deaths.

Concurrently, Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES) is maintaining a tip line at 541-315-6650. CAES is still offering a reward that has grown to over $4,000 for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person(s) responsible for the deaths of the horses.

Reach the reporter at lsingleton@wmicentral.com

Laura Singleton is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering Show Low city government, business and education.

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