HEBER — The national, non-profit wild horses advocacy group, Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES), have reached out to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) with a request to transport water to a herd of 15-20 horses within the 300-450 horses that make up the total Heber wild horses population.
Advocates fear that the horses, also referred to as the “Heber wild horses” and “the Heber herd” may succumb to dehydration as extreme drought conditions have caused water holes, stock ponds and natural sources of water to completely dry up.
CAES representatives report that one horse has already died and that it’s a matter of time before more suffer the same fate. This particular herd cannot access water due to fencing that runs north/south in the area. “It’s not an issue of gates being open or closed because there aren’t gates in that stretch of fencing,” says Val Cecama-Hogsett of the Oregeon extension of CAES who is working with Arizona and local-area wild horse advocates.
Local residents that advocate for the wild horses and members of CAES contacted Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests representatives last week to ask for permission to transport water to the horses. However, there seems to be confusion as to what can be done and by whom.
“The community members are willing to take water to these horses right now,” said Cecame-Hogsett. “There should be some access for the horses to traverse. They need to be able to traverse the whole territory for water and for breeding and maintaining the genetic health of the herds,” she added.The ASNF understands the problem to be closed gates. However, CAES says that gates aren’t the root cause in this situation.
“There are no gates where these horses are,” explains Cecama-Hogsett of national advocate group, CAES. “The fences run north to south and there is no access on either end for the horses to get around. “There is water that they can see and smell to the west of them but they can’t get there.”
Local wild horse advocates along with their national CAES partners say they have a solution — they will bring water in for the horses.
However, the simplicity of bringing water into the area appears about as murky as the crusty remnants of dried-up water holes. There are a multitude of stakeholders that include but are not limited to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, local cattle ranchers, and Heber-Overgaard residents like Mary Hauser that actively advocate for the wild horses and are backed by national groups like CAES.
The Independent contacted Steve Johnson, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) Information Assistant, for comment as he is the lead staff with regard to issues surrounding the Heber horses. Johnson was unavailable to comment in detail because he was in Phoenix attending the ongoing, collaborate monthly Heber Wild Horse Territory meeting.
“There’s a lot of moving parts. We are in the process of coordinating everything with all the affected stakeholders,” said Johnson. “There are a lot of caveats to bringing water into the forest during a drought. For example, we are in Stage 2 Fire Restrictions and there are serious concerns about motor vehicles causing sparks. We have to keep everyone in compliance and we have to cross every “t” and dot every “i” in order to protect all resources,” added Johnson.
The ASNF has been in communication with the wild horse advocacy groups since last week and posted this message to their social media page on Friday, May 11: ”The ASNFs shares the public’s concern regarding the drought conditions on the Sitgreaves National Forest, and is working with the local public to ensure access to water for horses is available. The Black Mesa Ranger District is coordinating with local private individuals who have expressed an interest in providing water for the horses. Two of the private entities that are assisting with coordination efforts are the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance and the Gila Herd Foundation. Private individuals may contact the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance at 602-571-1232, and the Gila Herd Foundation at 928-978-3417.
Gates are open throughout the territory and the horses are free to roam and access available water. Only a few gates may be closed for the safety of the horses where water has become dangerously low.”
“The biggest statement I can make here is that this situation with a Heber wild horse dying of dehydration did not have to happen,” said Cecama-Hogsett of CAS.
“Originally, the ASNF said that we (CAES) could not bring the horses water without going through the Arizona Game and Fish Department,” said Cecama-Hogsett.
“Then they said that an environmental study had to be done. It wasn’t until Friday, May 11, that Steve Johnson from the ASNF said that we could give them water but there was already a dead horse by then.”
According to CAES, Johnson also said that providing water to the Heber horses could create a situation where the water creates mud as it dries up, similar to that of the Navajo Nation where horses searching for water became stuck in the mud and died.
“As long as the forage is enough for the horses and cattle, there isn’t a problem except for dealing with the interior fences,” say CAES representatives. “The cattle are moved around during different seasons. Opening the fences up, installing more gates and /or widening gates when the cattle aren’t in those areas help. The livestock numbers need to be decreased to give the horses principal use because the sanctuaries are to be managed principally for wild horse according to the 1971 policy enacted by Congress to manage wild free-roaming horses as components of public lands.”
“Arizona should take a whole lot of pride because that Heber area ecosystem is beautiful simply because it’s working,” said Cecama-Hogsett.
“That’s the big story — that Heber herd is the only one that IS working. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Let us and the community step in and help if need be.”