WHITE MOUNTAINS — Like a cloud of dust from a galloping herd of mustangs, commentary and criticism arose from the recent release of the final draft report of the collaborative working group brought together to consider the future of the horses on the Heber Wild Horse Territory.

Some work group members and stakeholders outside the work group are dedicated to maintaining the Heber herds as they are today. Others have expressed dissent over whether the horses should even be afforded protection under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

The diverse working group members met between August, 2017, and November, 2018, were charged with collaborating to provide a written document containing recommendations for the Forest Service to use in the creation of a Heber Wild Horse Territory management plan. The working group was facilitated by Arizona State University.

According to ASU and the Forest Service, the report was the result of 14 months worth of collective study, discussion, data analysis, and work “… critical to providing for the sustainability of the area’s natural resources and for the horses of the Heber Wild Horse Territory...” wrote Apache-Sitgreaves Forest Supervisor Steve Best in the press release.

“This was quite different than a public meeting; instead it was a collaborative working group where people were engaged in putting together management recommendations for the Forest Service,” explains ASU Assistant Professor Michael Schoon. “Our job was to ensure that we included people from a diverse set of perspectives and a variety of communities that were able to attend all meetings and operate within the guidelines, protocols and agreed-upon goals for developing recommendations specific to the Heber Wild Horse Herd.”

“The participants were informed of the dialogue and discourse from the beginning of the process and that’s what we held throughout,” added Schoon.

“There were numerous smaller task-group meetings and discussions in addition to the meetings,” adds Schoon. “Working group participants drew on input from the BLM, the Forest Service, scientific publications and from their respective constituencies, engaging in frank conversations to arrive at their recommendations.”

Why the need for a work group?

The Heber Wild Horse Territory was established in 2007. Since then, the Forest Service has drawn heavy criticism from wild horse advocates for not creating a formal management plan for the horses. The pressure was turned up in the summer of 2017 when an extreme drought left waterholes dry and horses dying of dehydration. Horse advocates, local residents and the Forest Service came together to haul water to the horses, while bringing the lack of a management plan back to the forefront.

In response, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) enlisted the help of ASU and professional facilitation company, Southwest Decision Resources, was hired to lead the work group.

“One of the primary goals of the collaborative’s working group was to come up with practical solutions that could actually be implemented,” writes Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor’s Office, Information Assistant Steven M. Johnson.

Following publication of the working group’s document/draft, the Independent solicited comments from work group participants and members of the public.

Response from participants and the public

Reaction from work group participants shared in ASU’s press release appeared positive and hopeful.

“The collaborative effort was an amazing process of bringing a knowledgeable, dedicated group of volunteers together to review extensive information from experts with the result of providing better management options with the goal of protecting the Heber wild horses,” said Soleil Dolce of Arizona Equine Rescue Organization in the press release.

“The Working Group came together presenting positive and fair recommendations for the management of the Heber wild horses,” said Barbara Rasmussen of the Gila Herd Foundation of Arizona in the press release.

“I believe the collaborative has offered a balanced set of recommendations that will allow for equitable sharing of resources for horses, elk, and cattle in the Heber Wild Horse Territory,” says Vashti “Tice” Supplee of the Arizona Elk Society in the press release.

Some advocates still disagree

Despite these and other favorable statements, it may be fair to say that some horse advocates still express disappointment in the recommendations in the report. Some also feel that their groups were not adequately represented.

For example, Heber-Overgaard area resident Robin Crawford, who was heavily involved in hauling water to the horses during last summer’s drought wrote in an email to the Independent that, “... the collaborative board had a pre-set agenda which was to remove all free roaming wild horses from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.”

“In reviewing their recommendations, they talk in circles and its not based on facts,” Crawford continued. “This is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money.”

“The Heber Wild Horse Territory collaboration was typical of so many government programs that are designed to solve a problem that does not exist,” wrote Michele Anderson of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance, also in an email to the Independent.

Mary Hauser, also a member of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance and long-time photographer of the herds within the territory, says she was dismissed from the collaborative work group by ASU because she disagreed with some of the recommendations.

“The work group meetings were like sitting on a roller coaster and you can’t get off,” describes Hauser. “You just have to go the way the tracks go.”

“Mike Schoon left me a voicemail claiming the work group had decided I was not working within ‘in the spirit’ of the group,” Hauser told the Independent in a December 21 interview. “I was also met with great resistance in the meetings when I expressed disagreement with their suggestion to cull the herd to 60 horses.”

The Independent contacted Schoon about Hauser’s dismissal from the group and he confirmed Mary’s dismissal. “Mary truly wants to do right by these horses and it was unfortunate that this happened,” said Schoon in a January 16, phone interview.

“Unfortunately, I had the responsibility of relieving Mary from the work group,” confirms Schoon. “I also dismissed two other original members of the work group who were unable to fulfill the commitments required.”

“It’s our opinion that you have not been working in the spirit of the collaboration and as such, effective immediately, you are no longer a member of the work group,” said Schoon in a voicemail recording sent to the Independent by horse advocate Michelle Anderson. “All communications from our end will be stopped. We want to thank you for your time and all the effort you put in. We look forward to meeting again in the future,” added Schoon.

Time for public comment

Johnson said that the first of several public comment periods on the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management Plan are expected to occur this summer which will include a 30-day window for public comment.

The Environmental Impact Statement is expected to also be released for a 40-day public comment period this December, followed by a completed Heber Wild Horse Territory management plan sometime in 2021.

To view the Heber Wild Horse Territory Collaborative Working Group Final Report, DRAFT 1, in it’s entirety, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/asnf/HWHT. See the “Updates” tab in the drop down list.

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

forest4all

I have been a hunter and conservationist in Arizona for over 33 years. The Wild horse territory was established in 1974, not 2007. As far as the number of horses, your estimate is considerably lower than many I have talked to who do surveys. I was surprised by the angst that Ms. Hauser has for the working group. Everything that I have read and people who were on the committee all seemed to come to a conclusion that represented sound biological management........ except for Ms. Hauser. I hope that cooler heads prevail in the future as the area in question went from no horses in the 1990's to almost 350 since the Rodeo - Chedeski fire. Conservation groups have created and built many watering locations and the ranchers have also contributed to attempting to maintain water for ALL wildlife. A recent article entitled "Bullies Of The Range" shows that the horses are hoarders of water and that presents issues for other wildlife. I have owned horses, think they are magnificent.... But when there is adulation for one species it dooms all the others...... Reasonable numbers (65 - 90) should be maintained.

Terry W

We have lived in the White Mountains since 1995. We have enjoyed driving the back roads and trails. There were wild horses in the forest in the 1990s. We enjoyed seeing them then and enjoy them now. I have never heard of horses hoarding water and I dont believe that is true. Animals in the forest coexist now as they have for hundreds of years. The horses are a part of the forest just as the elk, deer, coyotes, racoons, and skunks are.

Robin2005

I was a water hauler during the drought and have many photos of elk drinking with wild horses standing right beside them . The article failed to mention that by USFS counts the Heber Wild Horse #'s have remained stable since 2005 . I have no idea where you get your facts but ours are documented.

Clown2

The facts are off a bit including when the territory was established, which was 1974. The article is certainly slanted in one direction and using Mary & Robin's "emotionalism" is typical when it comes to managing horses and pushing their pro-horse message. There is no way they understand science based management. The territory is small and hopefully the FS will pick a number between 50 & 75 horses. The difficult part then will be removing the remaining 500 plus horses. I have nothing against horses but they aren't that exciting when you can drive every road in Unit 3C and see them. Our wildlife need a break and I hope I live to see the day when every trespass horse off the territory is removed. I would recommend the author of this read the Heber Horse Facebook page once in a while; I've seen some awful messages from that group including threats to forest service personnel. They don't hold their folks accountable for being unprofessional and allowing criminal threats to be placed on their page.

Robin2005

Clown2 , my emotional response was based on fact , you obviously no little about about the Heber Wild Horses nor the forest they live in , the number of horses suggested by the collaborative board is not a viable herd # . This herd has sustained a steady population for yrs.and that is by FS counts . I love it when people assume that a specific group is out for the good of all and not for special interests , I am also an avid hunter and the comments I hear from local ranchers about the elk population in 3 c is not about how they wish they would keep multiplying lol . And the drought came on a good 6 months after the start of the collaborative board . FYI the elk and other wildlife greatly benefited from our water hauling effort . Game camera proof .

HWHFPA

During the drought of last summer the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance water hauling team provided water for the wild horses in areas where cattle pasture fences prevented the horses from migrating to other areas of the forest to find water. Our team’s water hauling efforts began three weeks prior to the forest closure and lasted until the forest was reopened. Not only did the wild horses benefit from the water but also the elk, deer and other wildlife as well. We placed game cameras overlooking our water tanks. The cameras captured wild horses and elk peacefully drinking from the tanks together. There was no hoarding or guarding by any of the animals in the hundreds of photos taken by the cameras. Hoarding and guarding did not happen, not even during this time when water was extremely scarce.

In a Freedom Of Information Act request, our group obtained numerous agreements between the Forest Service and public lands ranchers who held grazing leases in the Black Mesa Ranger District. The agreements were for the ranchers to be paid, by the Forest Service, for the capture and removal of horses from the forest. Many of the agreements were for horses to be removed from public lands grazing pastures which overlay the Heber Wild Horse Territory itself. The horses removed were sent to auction. This occurred during the 1980s and 1990s proving there were horses in the Black Mesa Ranger District prior to the Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002. Without the Forest Service having a management plan in place, we believe the agreements to have wild horses removed was in violation of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

According to documents issued by the Forest Service, the Heber wild horse herd population has remained consistent from 2005 until the present. That is without any culls or the use of birth control. Anti-wild horse propaganda states that wild horse herd populations will double in size every four years. If that was true the Heber Herd population would have grown from approximately 300 horses in 2005 to over 2,500 horses in 2019. That has not happened. The Heber wild horse herd population size is stable.

The opinions of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance are based on facts not contrived stories.

Russ_in_WML

crazy horse people. Cull the herd down to a low number

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