SPRINGERVILLE — Last week, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) published a long-awaited and much anticipated press release regarding the recent deaths of Heber wild horses in the forest near Heber-Overgaard.
Since October of last year, 12 dead horses were discovered and reported to the Forest Service and the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office by members of the public and the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance group who have kept tabs on the federally protected herd for several decades.
The Independent posted the press release on wmicentral.com and its Facebook page within an hours of receiving the document last Monday.
The press release indicates the the ASNF “continues to investigate horse incidents” and acknowledges that “several deceased horses have been discovered in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.”
The total number of deceased horses located since October 2018, when two stallions were found dead in the forest, is reported as 16 in the press release. The number of deceased horses is four more than reported by the public and the boots-on-the-ground members of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance (a.k.a. Heber Wild Horses group).
Surprisingly, the report also indicates that 12 of the 16 deceased horses were located “outside of the Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT) near Forest Roads 144, 146 and 50.”
The four horses discovered inside the Heber Wild Horse Territory were said to have been found near the 300 Road.
With regard to cause of death, the ASNF indicates that “a variety of factors may lead to horse deaths, which can include accidents, natural causes, predation, and shootings.”
Wild horse advocates say that almost all of the horses were intentionally shot and killed.
“At this time, our investigations appear to indicate that 10 of the deceased horses have evidence of gunshot wounds, 5 were seriously decomposed and the cause of death remains undetermined, and one died of blunt force trauma usually associated with a motor vehicle collision,” the press release stated.
The Forest Service has endured heavy criticism by wild horse advocates and some members of the public. An expedited investigation, forest patrols and more open communication about the status of the ongoing investigations were demanded in response to the deaths.
“When it is determined that a horse’s death was due to a gunshot wound, the investigation can be complex, as the burden of proof must be rock solid for potential use in court,” states the release.
Prior to this press release, the Forest Service has not shared details about their findings, but has repeatedly assured the public that open investigations were in process. The information provided in the recent statement aligns with some information put out by the Heber Wild Horses and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES) group including the number of horses found with gunshot wounds.
The total number of deceased horses reported by the boots-on-the-ground members of Heber Wild Horses was 12. Although all 12 were thought to have been shot dead, two of the horses had decomposed to skeletons, making it more difficult to identify gunshot wounds.
The Forest Service’s confirmation via the press release that 10 of the deceased horses showed evidence of gunshot wounds is consistent with what the group has been reporting.
ASNF also informs the public that they will be “employing additional resources to help with these investigations” including working with the Navajo and Coconino County sheriff’s offices and “deploying an additional team to conduct necropsies...” which is something the reporting parties have been requesting for months.
The Independent reached out to the regional Apache-Sitrgreaves National Forests administration based in Springerville for additional comment.
“While the USDA Forest Service finds this sad and disheartening, we remain committed to upholding the responsibilities as outlined in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act,” says Wendy Jo Haskins, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests’ Deputy Forest Supervisor in an email to the Independent on Friday, Feb. 15.
The Navajo County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO) received calls through their dispatch line about the deceased horses as they were found. In some cases they were on scene with Forest Service responders. And, earlier this month, it is believed that retired Navajo County Sheriff K.C. Clark spoke in person to Congressman Tom O’Halleran about the situation. The Independent asked for comment from the Sheriff’s Office.
“We prefer not to comment on specifics because we don’t want to jeopardize the investigation,” says Navajo County Chief Deputy Randy Moffitt. “We will continue to monitor the WeTip Hotline at 1-800-78-CRIME and all leads regarding horses will be immediately forwarded to the Forest Service, as they are the lead investigating agency,” he added.
The Arizona Game & Fish Department Pinetop Region office was also contacted but did not have a comment. Although the agency was part of the Heber Wild Horse Collaborative Work Group led by Arizona State University (ASU), they are not involved in the investigation and do not manage the Heber Wild Horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
Assistant Professor Michael Schoon of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability led the aforementioned work group who was charged with developing a comprehensive recommendation plan for the Forest Service. “This is a travesty,” says Schoon. “It’s one that, I believe, the Forest Service takes very seriously and has great concern about.”
“People of all walks of life – hunters and horse advocates, conservationists and private citizens — are saddened by these deaths,” says Schoon in an email sent to the Independent on Monday, Feb. 18.
Finally, the press release closes with the assurance that the Forest Service is in contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office “in order to quickly bring an potential perpetrators to justice” in what they say is a complex and faceted investigation.