OVERGAARD — At least 100 people participated in a rally April 22 in opposition of the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management plan proposed by the Apache-Sitrgreaves National Forests (ASNF).

“Let them be wild and free”; “Stop erasing American History”; “They have been here before you”; “No roundup — We only want humane management,” read some of many handmade signs carried by protesters.

Peaceful march

More than 76 people marching from the Tall Timbers park in Overgaard to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Black Mesa Ranger District office on April 22. The participants protested the Heber Wild Horse Management Plan drafted by the Forest Service.

Area residents and equine advocates from all over the state marched from Tall Timbers Park in Overgaard to the Black Mesa Ranger District Office. They marched in opposition to the Heber Wild Horses Management Plan drafted by the Forest Service.

The event was organized by Simone Netherlands, founder of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and the American Wild Horse Campaign. The Salt River group is an Arizona non-profit organization established to protect, monitor and scientifically study the Salt River Wild Horses living in Tonto National Forest.

Marching from the park to the Black Mesa Ranger Dist

People march toward the Black Mesa Ranger District office in opposition of the Heber Wild Horse Management Plan draft.

In 2007, the US Forest Service, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests was ordered by Congress to develop a management plan for the 300+ Heber Wild Horses who became protected under the Wild, Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

Marching along hwy 260

Protestors march east on State Route 260 towards the Black Mesa Ranger District office, April 22.

After 14 years, the plan is in the final stages.

Those that disagree with the proposed Heber Wild Horses management plan argue the following:

  • The 50 to 104 horses the plan recommends is too small to maintain genetic health.
  • ASNF will “cull” the herd to 50 to 104 horses through inhumane methods.
  • Removing the horses will destroy or remove American heritage and history.
  • ASNF has failed to protect the the Heber wild horses; they have been a target of illegal hunting since 2018.
  • The plan perpetuates an inhumane and failed management approach.
  • The plan ignores sensible options like utilizing birth control for the equines.
Sign for humane management of the horses

A protestor holds a sign that reads, “We want only humane management” in reference to the Heber Wild Horses living on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. Protestors consider the suggested herd number of 50 to 104 “inhumane.”

Culling the herd

In 2018, the published horse count was approximately 272. Now, more than three years later the Heber Wild Horses have increased in number but it’s unclear what the most recent population might be. Even with a population of 270, the number of horses is almost three times the number of horses the management plan recommends.

To achieve the plan goals as written, the herd would have to be “culled” to 50 to 104 horses. Culling a herd is reducing the number of animals. How that will be accomplished is a source of vehement dispute.

“US Forest Service plans to decimate the Heber Wild Horses!”, according to a press release issued by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. “... The plan proposes the removal of nearly every wild horse living on the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest inside as well as outside of this last federally protected wild horse territory on Forest Service lands in Arizona.”

Marching along hwy 260

Protestors march east on State Route 260 towards the Black Mesa Ranger District office, April 22.

The culling process, say the advocates, is cruel because it is the “Rounding up hundreds of wild horses, separating them from their families, and sending them to an already overcrowded federal holding system...”

The wild horses of northern Arizona have lived on these lands for more than a century, even before the Apache Sitgreaves was a National Forest, according to Simone Netherlands, President of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. She cites evidence from the Arizona State Archives mentioning wild horses in the Heber area in 1907.

Founder of Salt River Wild Horse Management Group

Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, Simone Netherlands, speaks to the crowd about the Heber Wild Horse Management plan. “The plan proposes the removal of nearly every wild horse living on the Apache- Sitgreaves National Forests inside as well as outside of this last federally protected wild horse territory on Forest Service lands in Arizona.”

“They are proud part of Arizona’s history and heritage, and Arizonans want wild horses humanely managed, not rounded up and stuffed in holding pens,” says Netherlands in regard to how wild or free-roaming horses are considered iconic symbols of the west.

Netherlands says that what the ASNF refers to as an “Appropriate Management Level (AML)” is extremely low. She argues that 50 to 104 wild horses on 19,700 acres is “insane and inhumane.”

“That’s one horse for every 394 acres!” says Netherlands. “This number is far too low to maintain a genetically viable population of wild horses in the Territory. This will mean that the Black Mesa Ranger District will round up hundreds of wild horses in northern Arizona from Forest Lakes all the way to Show Low, as they are all outside of the official Heber Wild Horses territory.”

Should a population of only 50 horses be left on the Forest, this illegal killing of horses could literally decimate them overnight,” she says.

Horse shootings

Controversy about the Heber Wild Horses has not diminished. Horses that have been shot dead in the forest over the last three years have put pressure on the ASNF to finalize and implement a management plan.

Rally and protesters

Supporters of the Heber Wild Horses hold a handmade sign to show that they want the USFS to protect the horses instead of removing them from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. 

Horse shootings continue 

Advocacy and observation groups such as Friends of the Heber Wild Horses, the Heber Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter are long frustrated with the illegal shooting of Heber Wild Horses on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. To date, ASNF officials in previous press releases confirmed 28 horses died of gunshot wounds between October 2018 and February 2021.

ASNF officials, on behalf of the Law Enforcement Investigative division of the US Forest Service assure the public that they are still working to find the person(s) shooting the federally protected, free-roaming horses.

“We are unable to provide further comment on the active investigation at this time,” stated USFS Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Public Affairs Officer in an email to the Independent dated Apr. 21. “ We will share information as we are able to with the public. We greatly appreciate public involvement and understand the importance of working with the public to best protect our shared lands. Furthermore, we continue to encourage anyone with information to reach out to We Tip Hotline at 1-800-78CRIME or to the Black Mesa Ranger District Office 928-535-7300. There is a $10,000.00 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.”

There are a variety of theories about who might be shooting the Heber Wild Horses in the forest but the fact remains that no one has been charged in the crimes.

Stakeholders

There is a long list of stakeholders that utilize public lands for camping, hiking, hunting, cattle grazing and recreating but the list of those that agree how to manage the horses is short. Also, some organization argue that the horses roam outside of the designated Heber Wild Horse Territory, damaging the soil and impacting the survival of other species.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon also have interest in preserving the White Mountains in Eastern Arizona on the ASNF for the Apache Trout and New Mexico Jumping Mouse. They filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service June 27, 2019.

Soil erosion

Soil erosion in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests 

“A local extinction of endangered New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse is taking place as the Forest Service has still not removed the feral horses in spite of the deteriorating situation,” states an Apr. 21 press release from the Center. “These feral horses are not part of the Heber Horse Territory which is approximately 80 miles to the northwest.”

The Center’s press release included photographs taken of the horses on April 8, 2021, according to the Center.

“The groups are calling for an updated management approach that keeps the wild horses on the public land, provides them with a fair share of forage and water resources, and manages their numbers humanely with fertility control, the immunocontraceptive vaccine utilized in both groups’ successful fertility control programs,” says Netherlands.

To access a copy of the original draft plan, visit: www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/33054_FSPLT3_5229105.pdf

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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