By Sydnee Wilson
The Forest Service is helping investigate the deaths, but this isn’t the first time feral horses have been slaughtered on federal land.
Wild horses are protected by the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. In the Apache-Sitgreaves forests, the horses in the Heber Wild Horse Territory in the Black Mesa District area on the Sitgreaves side are considered wild and are protected by the act. Horses in the Alpine Ranger District on the Apache side are considered feral or unauthorized, so they’re not federally protected. The Apache and Sitgreaves national forests were administratively combined in 1974 and are managed as one from Springerville. The Forest Service uses legal designations laid out by the act to distinguish between wild and feral horses in an area that stretches over 2 million acres.
Rob Lever, a detailed deputy forest supervisor for Apache-Sitgreave, said the classification has to do with location and timing. Horses present during the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act are protected, but those that arrived after that or were born out there are considered unauthorized livestock and aren’t protected.
Horses aren’t native to North America. Spanish conquistadors brought them to the continent in the late 1400s, and feral populations grew from escaped animals. Although horses were an integral part of pioneer life, they’re an invasive species that some scientists consider hazardous to the environment.
The Wild Horse and Burro Act established that “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. 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.”
Lever said the horses found dead in October are classified as feral and aren’t protected by this act, but may be protected by other laws.
“Wild livestock is somewhat protected by Arizona state statutes, as far as animal cruelty, etc.,” he said. “They’re not protected as far as living in that landscape by the Apache-Sitgreaves forest because they’re not native.”
Some groups want free-roaming horses protected at all costs, while others are more concerned with the well-being of the environment. Passion from both sides has the Forest Service caught in the crossfire.
Removal may not only prevent further shootings, but it’s also a part of the Forest Service’s efforts to restore and prevent the damage feral horses may have caused to the environment.
“We’re managing the habitat here in the National Forest and we have an unauthorized non-native species out there,” Lever said. “It’s adversely impacting the habitat.”
Lever said the Forest Service has been using gentle methods of removal, such as bait-trapping feral horses in big pens. They’re held for five days, then put up for sale in small groups.
Biologist Bob Vahle oversees the northeast part of the state, which includes the Apache-Sitgreaves forest, for the Arizona Wildlife Federation. Vahle worked closely with the Forest Service on horse management and habitat restoration in the area.
Vahle said feral horses overgraze rangelands, trample streambanks and compete with endangered species, including the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the Apache trout. In addition, he said, feral horses have damaged multiple streams in the Apache-Sitgreaves forests.
“If those animals camp on those spots and they continually are utilized and don’t move off and let things stabilize or restore, then what happens is that all those stream banks start to break down,” Vahle said. “The stream starts to widen, and now the water in the streams essentially gets shallower, the temperatures go up, and now they become less inhabitable by trout or some of the aquatic species that depend on cool water or aquatic insects. So there’s kind of a domino effect that can happen just when you overgraze or over trample a particularly sensitive area like a riparian or stream area.”
Vahle said the feral horse killings might be happening because people see the damage these animals can cause.
“These are animals that are competing with native wildlife,” he said. “They may be competing with a permittee’s livestock … you think everybody loves horses, but I kind of take it in this situation, they’re looking at them as having impacts on habitat, impacts on the wildlife that they may like or impacts on maybe a rancher’s livelihood.”
Although feral horse populations have gotten out of control, Vahle said there are more humane ways to deal with the issue and that the Arizona Wildlife Federation doesn’t condone these killings.
“We do condone the humane treatment of the horses that are there, but we are supporting their removal,” he said. “They’re not native and they have not been formally designated as wild horses under the Wild Horse and Burro Act.”
The Forest Service and other agencies have had many difficulties dealing with the feral horse issue because of some advocates’ emotional attachment to horses, Vahle said.
Horse advocates and organizations like the American Wild Horse Campaign, Salt River Horse Management Group and Heber Wild Horses disagree that horses damage the environment. The groups are fighting to give free-roaming horses a place on Arizona public lands.
Betty Nixon of Heber has been fighting for the horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves for years. She said feral horses benefit the environment.
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