Horse advocates want to save Heber herd Brenna Goth, The Republic | azcentral.com 6:45 a.m. MST December 11, 2014Mary Hauser (left) and Michele Anderson, advocates for wild horses, photograph wild mustangs in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Overgaard on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. Several hundred horses live wild in the area and the Forest Service is looking at plans to manage the horses, including their possible removal. (Photo: Tom Tingle/The Republic)(Photo: Photos by Tom Tingle/The Republic)
- A management plan for wild horses in Heber is off hold after a 2007 lawsuit.
- Horse advocates fear the animals will be gathered for adoption or euthanasia.
- The Forest Service says many of the horses aren't descended from the original wild herd.
Three young chestnut, black and chocolate-colored stallions from the wild herd that roams the forest here spent a recent Friday morning lazing in a clearing, offering no clarity on where they came from.
The animals — known by their backers as the Heber wild horses — have drawn support from residents, visitors and an Arizona congressman who say they were born in the wild and should stay there as a federally protected symbol of the West.
But the U.S. Forest Service says few of the horses, whose exact herd size is under survey, are actually descended from the original free-roaming creatures. Instead, the agency argues that lost and abandoned horses have proliferated on public land to the point that the population needs to be controlled.
Rumors of a roundup have swirled in these small Navajo County communities on the Mogollon Rim, where about 2,800 people live. Trucks in the forest, helicopters overhead and unanswered questions led some to fear capture of the animals was imminent.
The Forest Service addressed those concerns in a public e-mail this month. The agency said that it's developing a management strategy for the horses, but that a plan likely won't be completed until at least 2016.
That's little comfort for advocates who have fought for the horses before and say they are ready to do it again. A Facebook page started in June with photos and stories of the horses has more than 2,000 "likes" from animal-rights activists worldwide.
Mary Hauser, 61, printed red, white and blue fliers, reading, "THEY NEED OUR HELP!!!!" for the restaurant bulletin boards and shop doors here. Hauser, who has been tracking the horses for years, said she has distributed 500 fliers since September.
"Our American spirit spikes up," she said.
Horse advocates and the Forest Service disagree about the horses' ancestry. Animal-rights groups took the agency to court over the issue in the early 2000s.
The federal Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act — passed in 1971 to protect the animals from sale and slaughter by hunters and ranchers — led to the creation of the Heber Wild Horse Territory on about 20,000 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
The Forest Service says the original wild herd likely no longer exists.
The seven horses recorded in the 1974 census dipped to two mares in 1993, according to the agency. It argues that federal protection under the act applies only to the original wild horses and their progeny — not the strays that currently live in the forest.
Advocate Mary Hauser searches for horses in a section of Apache-Sitgreaves.(Photo: Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic)
Wild horses are a genetic mix of the domestic breeds that once escaped from Spanish explorers, Western settlers, ranchers and Native American tribes. They're not a native species but were determined by Congress to be an integral part of the landscape under the landmark federal act.
"Wild" is a legal status given to unbranded and unclaimed horses on public land.
All the free-roaming horses and burros on public land in 1971, when the act was passed, were designated as wild.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management manages two herds in Arizona totaling about 200 wild horses, according to the agency's website. The Forest Service also manages several horse and burro territories in the state.
The agencies have the authority to determine how many horses the land can support and whether the herd's population is managing itself.
In some cases, federal agencies say, domestic horses enter the wild after escaping from or being abandoned by private owners.
"I would estimate a substantial portion of horses out there. ... God knows where they came from," said Ed de Steiguer, a University of Arizona professor and author of a book about the history and politics of wild horses in the U.S.
In 2002, the Forest Service says, the Rodeo-Chediski fire burned fences near Heber, allowing a large number of horses to wander from neighboring White Mountain Apache tribal land and other owners.
Many of them live on forest land not included in the horse territory, the agency said.
Without the legal status of a wild horse, the animals are treated as unauthorized livestock and are "subject to impoundment," the agency told The Arizona Republic in a statement.
That was the basis of Forest Service plans in 2005 to gather about 120 trespass horses for relocation and sale. At the time, advocates estimated 300 to 400 horses lived on the forest land.
Activists took the agency to court, arguing the horses were descended from the original Heber herd.
Plans were halted under a 2007 settlement requiring the development of a Heber Wild Horse Territory management plan under the National Environmental Policy Act, which allows for public input.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., spoke about the horses that year during a speech in the House of Representatives. He called them "a most precious natural resource to be preserved for our children and grandchildren who will be able to see them for generations to come."
The Forest Service says it was consumed with other land-management issues and recovering from the 2011 Wallow Fire, delaying work on the plan until now.
Grijalva said in an e-mail that the horses are a public asset and that he will be monitoring the management plan as it moves forward.
The Forest Service hasn't proposed a roundup yet. But it did say in a statement to The Republic that the increase of horses has "created conflicts with other landowners and users" of the forest. Parts of the forest are also used for livestock grazing allotments and recreation.
Throughout the West, it's still unclear what effect wild horses have on the land, de Steiguer said. But Heber advocates argue that there is plenty of space and grass for the herd.
"It's like taking a drop of water out of a 5-gallon bucket," said Robert Hutchison, who has lived in Overgaard for nearly 25 years.
On a recent drive through the forest, Mary Hauser spent nearly two hours before coming across the three young horses in the clearing.
"They have not trashed this place," she said.
Still collecting data
A Forest Service team is still collecting population and environmental data and expects to complete its management plan by 2016.
Backers fear the agency will identify a limited number of horses to stay on the land and gather the rest for euthanasia or adoption.
Federal management of wild horses is controversial throughout the country.
The BLM estimates there are nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros on its land in 10 states. The Forest Service manages an additional 37 horse and burro territories.
The number of free-roaming wild horses and burros is already almost double the number the BLM has determined ideal for a healthy ecological balance. That's not counting the nearly 50,000 captured wild horses and burros in corrals and pastures as of November, according to the agency.
There's no long-term fertility vaccine to stop the growth of the free-roaming herds, BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said. The agency does use a short-term drug that lasts about a year.
And adoption rates are down, he added, straining the agency's holding capacity.
The BLM rebuts claims of using inhumane practices to gather the horses and says it does not sell them to slaughter. But after an adopted horse's title is transferred to the owner, the BLM no longer tracks the animal.
"There are a lot of success stories with adoption," UA's de Steiguer said. "There are a lot of unhappy stories, as well."
But wild horses have few natural predators and spend most of their time eating and breeding, de Steiguer said. He added that herd populations can double in five years and that it's likely that — if left unchecked — growth could lead to problems.
"It's one of those wicked public-lands issues," he said.
Attachment to Heber horses
The public has sentiment for free-roaming horses, wild or not, de Steiguer said. It gets more complicated when people identify with a specific herd.
Overgaard resident Donna Doss said she first remembers seeing the Heber horses during childhood hunting trips with her father.
"That's an animal that's part of Arizona history," said Doss, 70, during her shift at the Lone Eagle Outdoor Shop. "I go out once a week to see them and the beauty of the freedom of them."
Hauser frequently follows the washes, meadows and clearings where the "Magnificent Seven," a band of male horses, and Old Buck, her personal favorite, spend their days. She said she has never touched or fed the horses but has seen births, deaths, fights and tender moments.
The Forest Service plan will be open for public input under the federal process. Advocates are collecting stories about the horses and searching for proof of how long they've been there to present to the agency.
"These are my horses, in my forest, on my land," Hutchison said. "There are some stubborn people that are going to go to bat."