Wild Free-Roaming Horses in Danger of Removal from Arizona Public Land

Safe for Now

Local residents claim wild horses have roamed the land around the town of Heber, Ariz. and the Mogollon Rim since the 17th century—and due to a temporary restraining order obtained by of the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), In Defense of Animals (IDA) and the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Wild Burros, they're safe for the time being. Unfortunately, if the US Forest Service (USFS) has its way, they won't be there much longer.

Approximately 300 to 400 horses, many of whom live in the 14,000-acre Heber Wild Horse Territory (designated as protected public land for wild horses under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act) of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, are currently at risk of being rounded up and effectively sent to their deaths at a slaughterhouse. Each of these horses—even mares with foals—has been deemed "unauthorized livestock" by the USFS.

Some say the agency has wanted to remove horses from the area for years, and an incident that occurred three years ago has given them an excuse. The USFS claims the animals came to the area from a nearby Apache reservation following the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, so they are not wild horses native to the region. The fire destroyed many acres of land in Fort Apache Indian Reservation and Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests, taking with it boundary fencing and possibly allowing more horses than was previously typical to move from adjacent lands. On Aug. 30, the USFS officially announced its plan to remove the horses who currently graze in the burned Rodeo-Chediski area along the Mogollon Rim.

This is a death sentence for the animals. Once these horses are removed as trespassers, they will be impounded and sold at the Valley Livestock Auction in Sun Valley, Ariz. The auction is well known as a hot spot for killer-buyers; the slaughterhouse representatives are typically able to purchase the animals cheaply because of a lack of demand from legitimate buyers. If sold at this auction, it is inevitable that the majority of these horses will go to slaughter.

History of the Region

Meanwhile, the USFS claims it wants to remove the horses because they are causing environmental damage. Considerable amounts of time and funds have gone into refurbishing the land damaged by the 2002 fire, and the agency believes the horses may upset sensitive areas of the environment. However, the USFS seems to forget that wild horses are a historic part of this land, dating back to the time of the early Spanish explorers. Instead of attempting to manage a reasonable number of horses in the area, the agency is taking the easy way out—and destroying a living, breathing part of the environment in the process.

In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act proclaimed, "Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.... It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."

The definition stated by the Act implies that the horses the USFS wants to remove are indeed covered as long as they're on protected public land, unless it can prove they are "unauthorized livestock" who have not intermingled with any wild horses. It reads, "Wild free-roaming horses and burros means all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States." The agency says it intends to exclude the horses living in the protected Heber territory from its roundup (thought we believe it has actually tried to zero out these horses for years)—and at the same time, it claims actual wild horse populations have not lived on the land in question for several years. Yet longtime residents beg to differ.

"Prior to the Rodeo-Chediski fires in 2002, I had seen herds of wild horses throughout the Heber/Overgaard area. The size of the herds have [sic] varied but have [sic] included at least a dozen horses at any given time," said Ron Britz, a full-time resident of the area since 1980. "None of the horses… were branded or had any domestic markings, to the best of my knowledge."

By way of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act definition of "wild horses," most of the 300 to 400 horses are covered by its protections. Investigation to date shows that the horses are unclaimed (and almost entirely unbranded) and living on protected public land, and there is no way to distinguish possible stray domestic horses from historic wild horses without a brand. Horses who do have brands should be rounded up responsibly and returned to their rightful owners; the rest should be allowed to run free.

Our Fight

Still, the USFS plans to round up these horses without any type of study, without any opportunity for public comment and without any media exposure. AWI and our aforementioned colleagues plan to fight this action aggressively. We were granted a temporary restraining order on Sept. 9 to stop the agency from removing the horses. This prevents the USFS from acting until Sept. 23, when a preliminary injunction hearing will be held. We are working with the Arizona law firm of Bryan Cave LLP, to seek a preliminary injunction against the gathering of these true wild horses and their sale at auction, and we plan to do whatever is required to preserve their lives.

"We have much historical evidence that shows these horses are the descendants of the Spanish horses brought by the soldiers who accompanied Father Eusebio Kino as he traveled across Arizona after establishing the missions of San Xavier and Tumocacori," said Dr. Pat Haight, southwest regional director of IDA. The available information verifies these horses existed in huge populations across the entire Mogollon Rim and the Heber territory throughout the large ranch eras of the 1800s and 1900s, when ranchers ran their cattle and domestic horses with the wild horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest, she explained. This long history must be preserved.

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