WHITE MOUNTAINS — Now that the monsoons have come and gone and fall has settled in over the White Mountains, long-standing questions remain about how to management of the approximately 272 horses living in the forest east of Heber and south of State Route 260. The need for a management plan for the animals was underscored by drought conditions that dried up traditional water holes earlier this year in areas of the forest that are part of the Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT).
The HWHT includes just under 20,000 acres of land set aside for the free-roaming horses along with the public lands neighboring the preservation area.
In late May several local residents, horse advocates, small businesses and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Black Mesa Ranger District worked together to bring thousands of gallons of water to the free-roaming horses there. Devastating pictures of horses suffering severe dehydration and starvation from lack of water began to circulate on the internet and social media, bringing a flurry of emotion.
In late May and throughout July, a mix of mission-minded agencies, advocates, non-profit organizations, local small businesses and private citizens joined the common cause to bring water to the horses.
Local advocates from the Heber Wild Horses Preservation Alliance under the leadership of Robin Crawford of Heber reached out to the Forest Service to coordinate water hauling efforts. Because the forest was closed due to fire restrictions, certain guidelines were established that incorporated adherence to fire restrictions already in place.
Although it’s still unclear how many thousands of gallons of water were hauled and how many hours of donated time and labor went into the project, the water-hauling effort was a success.
In late June the monsoon arrived, bringing water vertically instead of horizontally, courtesy of Mother Nature.
But the the rains didn’t bring an end to the controversy surrounding the horses. Perhaps this summer’s collaboration between the equine advocacy groups, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, local businesses and private residents have renewed the dedication to finding a solution.
History of the Heber horses
Those that have followed the issue of free-roaming horses on a local, state or national level know that the subject of how to manage horses on public or forest land is far from simple. Government involvement goes back many years and has specific history starting in 1971 when President Richard M. Nixon signed into law The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
Since then years of litigation, injunctions, National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) processes and the painstaking work of developing region-specific and herd-specific wild horse management plans have taken place.
Recent numbers by the USDA Forest Service indicate that approximately 7,100 wild horses and 900 wild burros live on 53 wild horses and burro territories on roughly 2.5 million acres of National Forest system lands in five Forest Service Regions, 19 national forests and nine states. The total Heber herd is just under 300.
In 2002 the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire burned over 450,000 acres of forest with approximately 70 percent of the burned area falling within the designated Heber Wild Horse Territory. Over 20 miles of boundary fence and 11 miles of interior fences were destroyed according to the Forest Service.
“Horses, just like many elk and deer, were also pushed through the reservation and forest boundaries by the flames of the fire,” says Acting Chief Ranger Chadwick Amos of the White Mountain Apache Tribal Game and Fish Department.”
The Heber Wild Horse Territory timeline draft published by the Forest Service confirms this information stating that “large numbers of horses began to appear on Forest lands” following the fire.
The fences were fully repaired according to the Forest Service, the White Mountain Apache Tribal Game and Fish Department and other agencies. However, the animals were, for lack of a better word, “fenced in” on whatever side they happened to be at that moment in time.
Finding the right label: Wild, free-roaming, feral,
unauthorized or trespassing?
Despite water being available, fences being repaired and the continued work by the collaborative group to develop a Heber Wild Horses Territory management plan, the Heber horses continue to be the subject of heated debate.
The crux of the debate seems to revolve around what defines a “wild” horse to be afforded protection under federal law.
“A ‘wild horse’ is a legal status provided to unmarked and unclaimed horses and their progeny that were considered wild and free roaming on public lands at the time of passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (36 C.F.R 222.60 (b)(13)),” according to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) website.
The Forest Service also clarifies that, “Any horse introduced onto federal lands including National Forest System lands on or after December 15, 1971, by accident, negligence or willful disregard of private ownership is not considered a wild horse. Such horses are defined as unauthorized livestock. (36 C.F.R 262.10) Unauthorized livestock do not have the status of a wild horse under the Act.”
Equine advocates such as the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES) consider the horses “wild,” deserving protection under the Act.
“Most of the wild horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests do not live on the dedicated Territory however according to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act they still deserve the same protections,” states the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation website.
Mary Hauser, a well-known Heber horse advocate and photographer of the herd believes that the Heber horses are related to a herd of Spanish mustangs brought to the Southwest centuries ago.
“Characteristically, they have an almond shaped eye,” said Hauser in a June 2015 interview with KNAU reporter, Aaron Granillo. “The shorter back. Their nostrils are thinner as far as the texture and thickness of the skin,” says Hauser says. “And that’s all the Spanish look. So that tells me that these horses really are carrying the blood of those Spanish horses.”
Ranchers or “permittees” that lease Forest Service land for to graze cattle consider the horses “feral,” something closer to the unauthorized livestock identified under law. Those that attempt a neutral stance call the horses “free-roaming.”
“Unauthorized” or “trespassed” are terms that have been used by agencies such as Arizona Game & Fish Department, White Mountain Apache Tribe Game & Fish Department and the Arizona Cattle Growers Association and the Forest Service refers more to unbranded domestic livestock that got loose or were dumped on Forest land.
Local historian, journalist and author, Jo Baeza of Pinetop, says that it may require DNA testing to determine the true origins of the Heber horses. “it’s hard to say where they came from if they don’t have a brand on them,” said Baeza in the same 2015 interview with Aaron Granillo, KNAU Arizona Public Radio host. “I don’t think there’s any way other than testing the DNA.”
A nuisance to ranchers
Ranchers are stakeholders that have a place at the table alongside the Forest Service, horse advocacy groups and others because they rely on the ability to graze their cattle on forest land. They pay fees for the right to do so and, in exchange, they must follow rules about when, where and how many cattle are on an allotment.
The Independent spoke to a few long-time ranchers who have made their living raising cattle in the area. For many of them, the cattle business goes back several generations.
One of the primary complaints expressed by the ranchers is that the Heber horses are in competition with their cattle for food, water and resources. They claim they overgraze the land, drink water provided by the ranchers and cross fence lines, coming over into permittee grazing areas.
Stuart Lane Perry, Jack Carlyle and Kay Perkins are three White Mountain residents that were willing to share their perspective. Others declined interview citing fear of retaliation by horse advocates and frustration with what they see as an ongoing issue with no resolution in sight.
“I don’t have a problem with a small band of horses being managed,” says Lane Perry, of Heber. Perry has been a ranch staffer since the seventies and worked for ranch owners Richard Gibson and Doy Reidhead during a time when the horses were “out at a place called Decker Wash.”
“As a permittee (rancher), your agreement with the Forest Service is to maintain the fences, the land and often times that means supplying the labor to fix those fences and to haul water,” explains Perry. “The horses are competition for our resources and the Forest Service can’t take care of the forest because they are taking care of horses,” he added.
“You have the strike a balance between the horses, the allotted range, the cattle and the weather which effects the forage,” added Perry.
“Horses will continue to come through fences like they naturally do,” says Perry. “People who can’t afford their horses anymore also dump them out there, figuring they will be protected,” he adds.
Others ranchers echo what Perry says and say the horses have a significant, detrimental impact on cattle grazing, which makes striking a balance a very complicated proposition.
Jack Carlyle of Burton, now 82, has raised cattle in the area all of his life and says that citizens shouldn’t have to bear the cost of the horses being on public lands of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
“I’ll tell you what. If you want to run these horses, do the applications,” says Carlyle who feels the horses should be managed with permits like cattle. “Go through the process and set up payments for your range fees with Forest Service for your allotment. Then put all of those horses on there and have at it.”
Carlyle, like many other ranchers whose family goes traces back multiple generations, says that public lands and public money should not be utilized to manage the horses, “especially when they came from the reservation.”
Taylor-born, Show Low resident Kay Perkins grew up ranching and says he never saw horses out in the forest when he was young in the late fifties and early sixties.
“I’m not saying there weren’t any there at all but not like the numbers there are now,” says Perkins. “The problem now is that few understand the entire issue, nor do they understand the history.”
Perkins, like Carlyle and Perry, assert that the Heber horses are not wild. “Those horses are feral and you have to manage them,” says Perkins.
“Everybody likes to look at the horses but but nobody wants to take care of them; instead they want the government to take over at the expense of the tax payer.”
“You can’t say that all of those horses are wild; I just saw a horse out there the other day with a halter on it and another horse with saddle marks,” testifies Perry.
“I was on the wild horse advisory committee when they first set up,” says Carlyle. “The bottom line is that the horses eat our feed, they drink our water and they don’t belong in the permitted areas of the forest being managed with public money.”
“If we keep the horses where they are supposed to be, they are okay but right now, we got more horses than we got brains,” adds Carlyle.
Perry uses an analogy to explain why he feels the current management plan is not working and hasn’t for years: “I look at it like this. Consider that you and I were neighbors and we had a piece of property and it was fenced off,” explains Perry.
“And then I had 50 dogs running on my property and there’s a hole in my fence and all of my dogs go over onto your property. Does than mean that you should take care of those dogs now?”
“The answer is ‘no’,” says Perry. “It just doesn’t make sense no matter how you break it down.”
“As far as the cattlemen or ‘permittees’ are concerned, the horses are feral,” says Billy Elkins, vice president of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association.
The White Mountain
Some members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT) which shares hundreds of miles of fence line with the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests are confident that reservation horses crossing downed fences are not ground-zero for the Heber herd.
“This isn’t’ the tribe’s official stance, but it is my personal observation that the tribe is not solely responsible for the presence of the Heber horses,” says WMAT Rangeland Tribal Specialist Sisto Hernandez.
“In addition to people cutting the fences for illegal woodcutting, ATV riding and/or hunting, we also contend with people abandoning pets such as dogs, cats and horses all across our boundaries,” he explains.
“You can see how the number of horses increases every time there is a dip in the economy like in 2008. I’ve also seen horses with saddle marks, halters and hoof prints indicating some horses still have shoes on,” adds Hernandez.
“We typically don’t handle horses and cattle and we have nothing to do with feral horses but we do work with other agencies to fix fences when we can,” says WMAT Game and Fish Department Chief Ranger Chadwick Amos.
“Our agency has worked with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Forest Service to repair broken fences as we are patrolling but we aren’t budgeted for that,” explains Amos. “We feel it should be a shared responsibility and we all do the best we can to patch it together.”
In addition to fencing that burned down in Rodeo-Chedeski, “There is an overall increase in human activity along fence lines that shows just how much our White Mountain community has grown,” adds Hernandez.
Management Plan update
The ASNF is charged by law with managing the Heber herd. But even creating a plan to make management activities possible is difficult for a number of reasons.
“The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests has been working on revising … and addressing resource issues from the historic 2011 Wallow Fire, which also changed the landscape. These planning processes took precedence over the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management Plan/Strategy. During the interim, horses continued to naturally increase in numbers and perhaps stray onto Forest Service lands from adjacent lands.”
Forest Service includes management in their definition stating that, “Wild horses are managed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance in wild horse territories established under the Act.”
The Heber Wild Horse Territory work group was formed by ASNF and includes wild horse advocates, ranchers and other stakeholders in the wild horse issue.
A Sept. 28 update posted on the website says that HWHT work group led by Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and Southwest Decision Resources have “... started setting goals, and defining roles and expectations.” In addition, the group, “along with subject matter experts, took a field trip to learn more about the [Heber horse] territory...Now that the collaborative phase is nearing completion, it is time to begin the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.”
What’s next and how do
we get there?
The Forest Service assure the public they are making progress and that there will be opportunities for public input through the NEPA process. In addition, “Public meetings will provide a means for further engagement during the planning process. The NEPA process is expected to be completed by 2020,” states the website update.
“All of us want healthy landscapes and ecosystems because our wildlife can’t exist without that but there has to be some form of management for the horses,” adds Hernandez.
“I think the fighting between us is kind of over,” says Robin Crawford of Heber, a member of the Heber Wild Horses Preservation Alliance.
“The HWHT is considered a special area by the Forest Service, and we are committed to developing a management strategy that maintains the horses in a thriving natural ecological balance and a multiple-use relationship on the territory,” said Steve Best, Forest Supervisor with ASNF in the Sept. 28 update.
For more information, visit https://heberhorsecollaborative.asu.edu/.