HEBER-OVERGAARD — Not far from the rushing traffic on State Route 260 and the Bison Ranch tourist development, two horses lie dead.

“Whoever did this to these horses has no respect for life and no respect for themselves,” says Stacy L. Sanchez of Overgaard. “There’s no reason to shoot or harm these animals.”

Sanchez was one of several local residents who are sickened, heartbroken and angry after finding a total of four dead horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, just a few hundred yards south of SR260.

All four horses are believed to be part of the Heber Wild Horse herd that live on over 19,000 acres that make up the Heber Wild Horse Territory.

All that remains of two horses are skeletons. The other two horses, a stallion and a mare with a surviving yearling filly, appear to have died on or around Monday, January 21. However, time of death, cause and manner of death is currently unknown.

The January 15 sighting of the skeletons was reported by an anonymous party to the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance (a.k.a. Heber Wild Horses), a non-profit group who has been advocating for the horses for several years.

Representatives of Heber Wild Horses reported the information to the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office, as the Forest Service was unavailable due to the federal government shutdown. They also took photographs of the remains, documenting date, time, weather conditions and other vehicles seen in the area.

One week later, on Tuesday, January 22, the bodies of two more horses were found dead in the same area as the skeletal remains. The Heber Wild Horses group also contacted the Independent by phone and email on Tuesday.

The horses found on Tuesday had barely begun to decay so advocates and local residents are hopeful that their bodies hold clues to their demise.

“I’ve kind of been a go-between,” says Stacy L. Sanchez of Overgaard. “I live in the immediate area and took pictures of the stallion, the mare and the yearling filly yesterday.”

Sanchez is so upset by the deaths of the horses he waited in the area for the veterinarian to “come take the bullets out of the horses,” he told the Independent at the scene Tuesday evening.

“Robin and I were standing right here looking at the dead stallion and saw the bay mare on the hill,” recalls Sanchez. “Both horses look like they were shot dead and they are, literally, 600 feet from each other.”

“Now the mare’s filly is running around and has no idea what to do,” proclaims Sanchez. “She ran off across the wash and now she is hiding in the thick. We’re hoping she hooks up with another band soon.”

Members of the Heber Wild Horses group are confident that the cause of death for all four horses and a couple of coyotes found nearby was gunshot wounds. They don’t have proof because they didn’t witness the incidents so they are relying on John Lopez, the Forest Service investigator assigned to the case, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Heber resident and Heber Wild Horses member Robin Crawford has been a boots-on-the ground member for several years. She waited by the horses’ bodies with Sanchez, hoping a veterinarian would arrive before dark. She also spoke candidly to the Independent about the situation.

“I’m so frustrated right now; I have just about had it,” says Crawford in response to what the advocates feel is a lack of urgency on the part of the Forest Service when it comes to the Heber Wild Horses.

Also on Tuesday, Navajo County Sheriff K.C. Clark confirmed that he had been notified of the incident(s) and was in fact en route to Heber to “investigate a call about dead horses.” In a brief phone conversation with the Independent later that day, Clark confirmed that U.S. Forest Service Deputy John Lopez would be investigating, as the case falls under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service.

“I spoke to (Navajo County) Deputy Shawna Many Goats on the phone and she advised us to contact Forest Service Disptatch," says Crawford. “That’s what we did when the two stallions were shot last summer and we still have no answers.”

“It’s being investigated — that’s what they always tell us," adds Crawford.”

Heber Wild Horses has posted updates on their social media page. They are still offering a $2,500 reward “for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person(s) responsible for the deaths of the horses.”

“Band stallion in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona found shot dead,” reads the heading of their Tuesday social media post.

Citizens Against Equine Slaughter, (CAES), a political action group that actively supports preservation of the Heber Wild Horses, also contacted the Independent by phone and email.

CAES is urging the public to contact the Navajo County Sheriff’s office WeTIP Hotline at 1-800-78-CRIME. They may also be contacted directly at 541-315-6650.

In addition to the reward being offered, Heber Wild Horses and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter, (CAES), are not waiting around for the results of a Forest Service investigation, which they distrust.

“I’m calling the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” assures Crawford.

The distrust they express relates to the apparently unresolved October, 2018, death of two stallions in the Heber Wild Horse Territory. That situation is similar in nature because horse advocates and some members of the public believe the stallions were purposely shot. This case is still under investigation by the Forest Service.

Tuesday’s reported deaths of the black stallion and bay mare appear uncomfortably similar to last October’s deaths.

“We were hoping a veterinarian would come find the projectiles in the dead horses but we’ve been through this before,” stated Crawford on Tuesday evening. “We still don't have information from the stallions killed last fall." 

Evidence just seems to disappear up here,” says Sanchez, referring to the stallions being buried after numerous requests for someone to investigate the bodies.

“We are contacting Congressman Raul Grijalva and the Attorney General on behalf of Heber Wild Horses,” says Val Cecema-Hogsett of CAES.

Killing wild horses is a violation of US 95-192, the federal law governing protection of wild horses. The Heber Wild Horses are considered protected under this Act.

“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,” reads the code on the Bureau of Land Management website under Section 8, which documents The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

“The manner of death of these animals is undetermined at this time,” said Navajo County Sheriff Deputy Randy Moffitt, in a phone conversation with the Independent on Wednesday. “Some people are speculating that the horses have been shot, but this information has not been confirmed by our agency, or by any other law enforcement or investigating agency.”

“With any criminal investigation of this nature, evidence is crucial in determining cause of death,” reminded Moffitt. “This is in the hands of the Forest Service now, as it is their jurisdiction.”

“With regard to public safety, the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office will respond to reports of people shooting in an unsafe manner,” assured Moffitt. “We will continue to investigate all calls as we receive them. Through that process we make a determination of whether law enforcement action is necessary,” said Moffitt.

The Independent contacted the Forest Service, asking for a press release regarding the dead horses. Despite the federal government shutdown, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, email responses were received within hours of the requests.

“Currently, USDA Forest Service Law Enforcement are investigating several incidents such as these, and therefore cannot comment on the details of ongoing investigations,” wrote Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor Steve Best in a Wednesday email response to the Independent.

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.

(7) comments

V Cecama-Hogsett

CAES has not received one call back from the Navajo County Sheriff or the Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer (Mr. Lopez) despite our reporting to them that we have had more than 15 calls on our tip line giving information about this incident. However, Representative Grijalva's Office returned our calls and will be helping us with this situation. This is an issue bigger than the crime of federally protected wildlife being shot. This is a public safety issue, of corruption, and complacency issue and a town under siege by thuggery, bullying and convicted felons running the show.

swyzzlstyx

It's been proven time and again that those who can abuse or kill animals often do the same to people...that's why it's important to find this/these criminals. They are obviously very sick. Just sayin'....

forest4all

I have watched with extreme interest and disappointment over the past 18 years as a plan of action to curtail the numbers of feral livestock has ballooned in the Heber Wild Horse Territory. As a conservationist, I want ALL wildlife to survive and thrive. the cattle rancher who has the allotment has gone from a "for profit" rancher to a "hobby" rancher and now has completely abandoned his operation. Horses are magnificent creatures but so are elk., deer, bears and other wildlife. The problem has been and always will be that all other forms of wildlife are culled though either a hunting process or in the ranchers case, moving the cattle to market. Horses really have no predators and the herd size has gone from zero in 1994 (per AZGFD surveys) to after theRodeo Chedeski fire having small bands that came over from the White Mountain Apache lands. As each year has gone on, the horse herd has grown to well over the 300 estimate that is currently being used. Something has to happen as the horses are well outside of the 19,000 acres that were deemed their territory. Water holes are being hoarded by horses and the end result is a lot of people being very frustrated at the lack off control that is currently happening. Horse advocates deem cattle and other wildlife as non essential.Tat attitude will hopefully change. Last year the horse advocates reached out to the conservation groups for $$ to water the horses. We found that so sad and naive. For the past 18 years we have been funding water for wildlife and the horse advocates have never contributed to our efforts. We understand the life cycle of animals and value ALL wildlife. It's time for the advocates to get the number of under 100 horses placed in the 19000 acres and establish fencing to keep them in their area. I will never condone the shooting of horses, but the rhetoric that the horse advocates have played to the media has always been tremendously one sided.
i hope that the future control of numbers of horses brings about a roundup that balances nature once again. We certainly need a balanced wildlife in the Apache Sitrgreaves National forest. There is no need to only champion one species..... JK

V Cecama-Hogsett

It is the ranchers that spread the lies of no horses after the fire, and of course there were still horses, and shame on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Service for repeating those lies to any degree. From 2003 to the pre-drought season in 2018 the number had not changed in either direction more than 50 horses because there is a healthy predator population....sadly including humans. After the drought of 2018 it was estimated that as many as 20 horses may have died, and now we have almost 10 more gone. So anyone who thinks we need to cull need to realize that in less than one year there has been a loss in much of the foal crop by natural predators, and a loss of nearly 30 horses due to human-caused problems, which includes the drought because horses initially were fenced out of water until we started hauling, and we were not aware or able to get to some pockets because of the FS closure due to fire hazard. Nature is beautifully balanced in the forest, and the only over-population we see is by livestock, and the water pollution and bank erosion from livestock...most in areas where wild horses are fenced out so don't try blaming them for this. And FYI the elk in that area outnumber the horses by far, when we hauled water we had huge herds of elk chasing the trucks in, and our game cameras caught mostly elk, tracks from a black bear, lion tracks and a gray wolf was even spotted hauling itself away when a volunteer drove up. So...what have you documented, or done to help "balance nature" JK?

V Cecama-Hogsett

By the way wild horses have been native to this continent for 54 million years...whether or not they have been tamed, and some were bred for breed specific traits, it doesn't make them feral, and our wild horses are legally wildlife not livestock. And as to the territory acreage, the whole migratory area used by the horses should have been included in the territory and Forest Service missed a larege section between the mapped territory boundaries and the reservation. As you claim orses went back and forth from reservation to the 'territory' deemed theirs...how could the land in between not have been used by the horses when the law said the lands there were known to use in 1971 were to be areas that wild horses were managed on. Additionally if the horses are not on the territory, could it be because of all the livestock fences? Ye, we know it is for that reason because we dealt with those fences as issues for the horses getting to water on the territory given them! Weknow elk and deer and some predators will jump a fence, but horses, wild or not, will not and those fences need to be removed on the wild horse territories to allow access to the entire territory for each horse on it, not just for water but also for natural selection during breeding seasons.

Russ_in_WML

Sadly it looks like someone has taken it upon themselves to cull this herd down to manageable numbers.

The horse people will not do it. In fact the horse advocates will never be happy with a set number of horses in this area, of which mostly are feral brought about by the Rodeo/Chedeski fire.

What will happen when the herd reaches 600? 1000? Nothing. It will never end. And to that point, someone has seen to it to solve the matter themselves.

And if, by some small chance. an agreement was reached for a healthy number of horses in this area, by what means will the numbers be reduced? Do the horse people really think they can capture hundreds of horses, truck them out to be adopted?

Animal rights activists always do more harm than good.

Russ_in_WML

And there is your proof.

V Cecama Hogsett says range fencing needs to be removed for her wild horses. Completely irrational and emotional. Like I say, it will never be good enough.

Reduce the herd to a small manageable number by whatever means. If they are truly wild then lets handle them as wildlife. Conservationists have been successfully doing this for years. State biologists know exactly how many horses this area can handle. Reduce their numbers. Cull out unwanted stallions. Crazy horse people can bring them out water if needed. Problem solved.

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