SPRINGERVILLE - March 16 marked the closure of the first public comment period regarding the Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT) Management Plan draft. The Forest Service is now reviewing the comments as part of the required process in developing a management plan for the herds living on 19,700 acres in the Black Mesa Ranger District on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
Developing a management plan for the free-roaming horses is the long-awaited result of the 2007 litigation initiated by horse advocates to halt a proposed round-up of horses on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. At that time, the Heber Wild Horses were afforded protection under the Wild, Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. This legal action included a stipulation that the Forest Service “collaboratively engage the public to complete a territory management plan for the Heber Wild Horse Territory,” according to an earlier press release from the US Forest Service.
A variety of stakeholders were expected to submit comments including Arizona residents, horse advocates, ranchers and national forest grazing permittees, wildlife managers, equine recreation professionals, equine training professionals, range science and veterinary medicine experts and even the Center for Biological Diversity.
“After that review has been completed, and if no significant findings were noted in the public comment, the forest will draft an environmental assessment in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and release it to the public for comments,” said to Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Public Affairs Officer Kacy Ellsworth. “We estimate to release to the public this summer a draft environmental assessment, if it is determined a draft proposed action is most appropriate.”
The finalized management plan will “guide future management of the horses and their habitat, including setting an appropriate management level of wild free-roaming horses for the territory,” says the Forest Service in previous press releases.
In 2017-2018, the ASNF also enlisted the help of Arizona State University and a professional facilitation company to lead a collaborative work group. They made written recommendations to the Forest Service for the Heber Wild Horse management plan. The Forest Service developed the plan draft, in part, from recommendations of the collaborative work group.
The draft recommends a horse population in the range of 50 to 104 horses which is more than triple the number of horses observed in an April 2017 population count cited on page 5 of the management plan draft.
The population table cites 22 - 51 horses observed "within the territory" and 270-420 observed "outside the territory" on April 17-18, 2017.
The distinction between horses inside and outside the territory is also controversial because the horses are permitted ingress/egress on the Apache-Sitgreaves Nationals Forests when gates are open.
If the plan is finalized with a recommended population of 40-104 animals, the herd will need to be reduced significantly in order to be in line with the management plan.
The HWHT draft offers several methods to manage population growth including immunocontraceptives, sterilization, passive gather, such as bait trapping (with feed, water, mineral supplement) with removal, and relocation.
According to the draft document, other population management methods could include altering the ratio of male to female animals to reduce population growth by controlling the release of captured male or female animals back into the territory. Altering the herd-age distribution is another way to reduce herd population.
“Our proposed management plan prioritizes management for removal of excess horses by the least invasive means to meet our adaptive management objectives,” assures Ellsworth.
An updated horse count will have to be conducted once the management plan is finalized. This would be accomplished through “ground surveys, aerial surveys, global positioning system collars, and when possible, partnerships, to determine population numbers,” explains Ellsworth.
To see a copy of the the draft visit the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests webpage: