The Heber Wild Horse Territory was established in 1974. It was in conjunction with the Wild Horse and Burro Act that President Nixon signed into law in 1971.
Since that time, horses in the Heber area have been studied extensively. In 1993, the Apache Sitgreaves National forest found that there were only two solitary mares in the area at that time. This changed in 2002 with the Rodeo Che-deski fire. Horses that were on the White Mountain Apache Tribal lands poured into the Apache Sitgreaves National Forests. Since 2002, feral horses have expanded their territory far beyond the area that was designated as the Heber Wild Horse territory. This is problematic, not only for the horse population, but for all wild animals that depend on the scarce resources and limited territory.
I travel quite a bit throughout Northern Arizona, and had the good fortune to be able to hunt in two of the units that are associated with the Heber Wild Horse territory this past year. Those units are designated as 3A/C and 4B. As an experienced hunter and dedicated conservationist, I’ve become deeply troubled by the dramatic changes in the area. The population of horses has exploded. While some horse advocates do not see a problem with a larger population, it has in fact created a larger ecological imbalance that must be addressed. This past year we have had a lot of rain. This was a blessing for all wildlife, but it was a rare occurrence. Such an exception only delays the inevitable. You simply cannot have a single species that grows each year exponentially without some management. The removal of a large amount of horses is absolutely necessary to maintain the balance for all wildlife.
The emotional response that horses generate is understandable. I have owned horses and they truly are magnificent creatures. I also love deer, elk, javelina, turkeys, antelope and wild sheep and I would like to see a natural balance of all animals that utilize our state. But this requires some thoughtful management.
All of the animals I mentioned above — other than horses — are regulated in numbers by the Arizona Game and Fish Department professionals. Their work encompasses professional surveys, translocations of species when necessary and establishing hunt guidelines to maintain an ecological balance across the state. Cattlemen, who utilize public lands for a fee to grow their cattle are highly regulated as well. They rotate their cattle from area to area and move them to market in the fall. They are also responsible for the massive numbers of water tanks that feral horses utilize continuously — a problem when they dominate these tanks and drive off other wildlife in search of water.
The only population of animals in our state that is not well managed are feral horses. Additionally, most of these animals have become what is termed “Habituated.” They have no fear of humans, as they have lived with unrestricted freedom against any human force for almost 20 years now. With the “wildness” gone from these animals, the area in question is rapidly taking on the appearance of a huge petting zoo.
The Arizona Game and Fish department cannot become involved with horses or cattle since they have no authority on these animals. In essence, horses are neither game nor fish. The Arizona Department of Agriculture can’t get involved, as the areas in question are federal lands.
The National Forest Service has worked for several years now establishing a management plan to remove some of the excess horses. That plan is greeted by an outpouring of responses by well-meaning, but totally biased horse advocates. When the public is given factual information about the history, trends and impact of the unanticipated changes that have occurred with the horse populations, the vast majority of people agree with the need for removal of the excess horses.
It is my hope that the public become educated about the imbalance of horses on public land, and how this is affecting all of the other wildlife. The number of horses that currently occupy the Sitgreaves Forest is unknown, but is well above 500 and has gone from a “designated territory” of 19,000 acres to an area far beyond what was designated. From the edge of the rim by Woods Canyon, all the way through Pinedale, horses prevail. The horses have also begun crossing the 260 Highway and are now spreading north into areas that were never considered “Horse Territory.”
It is time to implement the recommendations of the Heber Wild Horse Collaborative. The 19,000 acre Wild Horse Territory should be honored. It should also be monitored or fenced so that only horses have access to the area, and so they do not migrate as they have over the past 19 years. The purpose of that territory was established by Congress for a reason. I think they would be stunned today at what has happened to the Apache Sitgreaves National forest. The unintended consequences of the designation have placed the health off the forest and the animals that inhabit it at peril.
I hope that sportsmen and women begin to voice their concerns about the issues here and that they also contact their political representation to right what is becoming a horrible wrong. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests have spent considerable time and effort to have a sound management plan. It is time to support the implementation of that plan.