HEBER — “Who’s on first?” seemed to be the question hanging with the people and agencies dealing with a herd of thirsty horses near Heber.
But this was no comedy routine.
About 15 to 20 of the 300-450 horses living in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests have been in a day-to-day struggle to find water, like many other animals and wildlife that are enduring the statewide drought conditions.
This particular little band is reportedly in an area where their normal water source has dried up and the existing fence is without a gate, leaving them without access to water.
Local horse advocates with the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance, The Gila Herd Foundation and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES), have contacted ASNF representatives demanding action and bringing back to the forefront a question that has been debated since the early ‘70s when Congress enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
Referred to as “the Heber wild horses” or free-roaming horses and feral horses, the northeastern Arizona herd has gained increasing celebrity status as horse advocates, ranchers with grazing permits, the U.S. Forest Service and others try to determine how to allocate their most valuable resource — the land, and now — the water.
The horses are protected under the federally-recognized Heber Wild Horse Territory.
The situation escalated to new level of urgency when one horse was said to have died from dehydration, according to the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation social media posts.
Watering the herd
In an effort to bring relief to the horses, Heber residents, advocates and others launched into action, donating water, trucks, water tanks, gas money and personal time to deliver water to the area.
And those involved locally, don’t plan on relaxing their efforts anytime soon.
“We will continue asking for donations of water, trucks with trailers and water tanks and the help of anyone that can help us transport water to the horses,” said Michelle Anderson, representative of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance.
“We don’t know what this is going to cost yet. People are waiting for their water bills and filling their gas tanks, trip-by-trip,” she explained. “A couple of local residents are monitoring the water levels daily and identifying where and when refills are needed.”
While wild horse activists are helping to look after the horses, officials with the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest are in the process of formulating a long-term management plan for the federally-recognized Heber Wild Horse Territory.
Long term plans,
According to a letter from Forest Supervisor Steve Best that is posted on the ASNF website, the Forest Service has convened a working group that “aims to foster engagement across a broad range of participants and perspectives” to come up with recommendations for the management of the herd. The process began in February and is expected to take a year, followed by a one or two-year National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process before a final plan is formulated.
“The horse issue is very complex…,” explained Bob Birkeland, Arizona Game and Fish Department Supervisor of Pinetop Region 1. “Our agency is providing input as a cooperating agency into the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process; the guiding document for the horse management plan,” he added.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), although not responsible for managing the horses, is one of many agencies at the table with horse advocates, state universities, the Forest Service and many others. The issue of water is only one of many in a situation where dedication to the cause runs deep and wide. Horse advocates, state and federal agencies are key players in the water issue, however, local ranchers with allotments have a huge stake in the game. The Independent is attempting to identify and contact ranchers with permits in the area where the affected horses are, to get their comments on the situation.
The Forest Service, however is taking immediate steps to deal with the situation.
“As the week progressed, lines of communication seemed to open up between stakeholders,” said Steve Johnson, Apache- Sitgreaves National Forests Public Affairs Office Information Assistant and one of the lead staff on the Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT) issues.
Johnson said that the Acting Black Mesa District Ranger and other members of his staff sat down with the Gila Herd Foundation to “...get more organized on what locations the tanks are in the area.”
“They also worked on determining how many gallons of water might be needed, how many trucks and drivers are available to haul the water and what type of rotations would be required to keep the tanks filled,” said Johnson.
Johnson also stated that there are 19,700 acres in the entire Heber Wild Horse Territory but the immediate need lies with the tanks in the area just east of the designated territory, and south of Heber-Overgaard.
“The focus is on this specific area but there is a possibility that the area could expand or change depending on what the results of the tank assessments,” added Johnson.
“At this point, it’s looking like the private individuals that will be part of this operation will need to be on a list of approved operators so that delivering the water can be done in the most organized, efficient way,” he said.
“To clarify, the ASNF is not the entity that will be providing or hauling the water, however, they will be coordinating with the horse advocates and the local residents to ensure the safety of the environment, the community and the horses,” Johnson expounded.
Anyone approved to participate in the water-hauling endeavor will also be required to comply with all fire restrictions and any upcoming forest areas closures that might be implemented.
Currently, Stage 3 fire restrictions require the use of power take-off pumps (PTO’s) to pump the water. Gravity-feed can also be used to get the water into the tanks, however, internal combustion engines will not be allowed per current fire restrictions, said Johnson.
Mother Nature also has a stake in this game. No one knows how long drought conditions may persist. That leaves the same questions unanswered: Who will provide water if conditions remain the same? Who will pay for the water and fuel to haul it? Who will drive the trucks? Who will monitor and manage water for the free-roaming horses until the management plan is approved by everyone?