In Arizona, a small parcel of land in the Heber area was designated a wild horse territory in 1974 as prescribed in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. At the time of designation, there were seven horses present and the area was designated as being roughly 19,000 acres. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the horses in this area died out. By 1995, the Forest Service could not find a single horse living in the wild horse territory.
In 2002, the Rodeo-Chedeski fire destroyed over 500,000 acres of forests in areas surrounding Heber. With fences down, tribal horses streamed onto forest lands. By 2005, there were over 250 horses when the Forest Service announced intentions of rounding up these trespass horses. Lawsuits by horse advocates followed.
The federal court issued its ruling in 2007 and directed the Forest Service to develop a management plan for the horses. Conservationists across Arizona have seen the dramatic changes in the forest areas of Heber and the horse numbers are estimated at between 500 and 1,000 head.
If there is a culprit in this, it sits in the total lack of accountability with all of the forest supervisors and staff that have allowed the situation to fester over the past decade. A reasonable number of horses and a plan needed to be developed. The Apache Sitgreaves National Forests has created a climate of hostility and resentment, as well as an entitlement attitude by the horse advocates. The 19,000 acres that were designated as the horse territory has been expanded. The total land that feral horses now inhabit is over 400,000 acres. The “wild” horses are no longer wild, they graze with impunity at campsites. They are often referred to as the “bullies” of the range as they hoard water holes and drinkers to the exclusion of other wildlife.
It is simply unacceptable that feral horses are managed differently than resident wildlife, lawful grazing, and at levels that clearly cannot be considered to exist within a “thriving ecological balance” as prescribed by law.
This summer, public comments should occur (if the Forest Service can find the time) and that a plan will be put together. The wild horse advocates will scream in protest and file lawsuits so that the plan is on hold indefinitely. Sadly, these advocates do not care at all about any other wildlife.
Last, but not least, illegal activity by frustrated people who do not share the passion that horse advocates do is reprehensible. Frustration at the inept forest management is the cause. The Apache Sitgreaves National Forest employees allowed this mess to fester for over 10 years with no action. The forest in another four years will be decidedly worse off and the number of horses will double by that time. Shame on the horse advocates for not being reasonable. They want the whole forest and the way things are going they will soon have it. I pity all of the other wildlife that is being forced out by the bullies of the range.
John Koleszar is president Arizona Big Game Super Raffle, Immediate Past President Arizona Sportsmen For Wildlife Conservation, Immediate Past President Arizona Deer Association, Board Member Conserve & Protect Arizona.