Forest Service plans to cull Arizona wild horse herd
Federally protected herd near Heber, Arizona is too big to exist alongside cattle and wildlife, Forest Service says
Betty Nixon looks down a rugged, open hillside on Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and points toward a dirt road a quarter mile away.
“I think they were shot down there,” she says. “Then they ran up here to get away.”
Nixon is standing near two horse skeletons she found in a stand of pine trees a few miles outside Heber, Arizona, where at least 20 wild horses have been shot in recent years. The U.S. Forest Service, which is leading the investigation, has named no suspects. The horses, part of a herd that has roamed near Heber since the 1990s, are at the center of a largely settled dispute stretching back decades.
Later this year, the U.S. Forest Service will finalize a management plan for the herd, which is protected by the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act. The horses live on and near the Heber Wild Horse Territory, a 19,700-acre area set aside when the act passed. The plan is to capture horses until the herd is at about 100 animals, then use birth control to keep it there.
Through a spokesman, the Forest Service declined to comment on the shooting investigation. The latest confirmed death was in January, when four horses were killed, bringing the official tally to 20. Nixon believes the number is much higher and includes the two skeletons, which were not counted by the Forest Service.
Extrapolating from 272 horses seen during 2017-18 surveys, the Forest Service estimates there are 400 horses in the Heber herd. They roam across the rolling rangeland in bands from a handful up to a few dozen wandering on and off the designated territory guided by cattle fences.
Horses have lived wild in the area since at least the 1930s.
A 2017 Forest Service ethnographic study found two distinct periods of horse occupation on the designated territory — one from the 1930s through the late 1960s, and the current one, which started in the 1990s.
The earlier group, descended from military horses turned loose after World War I, dwindled to about half a dozen animals, then eventually died out. The current group has thrived, growing from small groups from local releases and through faulty fences from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
“There were around seven horses in the 1960s and 1970s, when the territory was first created,” a summary of the ethnographic study says.
“A hard winter in 1967-1968 left the stud or stallion sterile. There were no more foals within that original herd after that winter or any subsequent years. The herd dwindled down to two horses, which likely died of old age.”
With the herd for which the territory was created gone, the study recommended basing the management plan on the current population.
Richard Madril is the chief ranger of the Black Mesa Ranger District, which is home to the horse territory and more than a dozen cattle grazing allotments. Within their territory, the horses are a higher priority than cattle, Madril said.
The horse territory touches six grazing allotments in Black Canyon, where ranchers have a multi-acre holding pen between two larger allotments. Gates allow ranchers to control the comings and goings of cattle.
“When livestock aren’t there, the gates are to be left open,” he said, admitting that gates that were closed on a recent day should have been open.
Madril said he has legal obligations to ranchers and horses.
Though the public comment period ended last year and the management plan is nearing completion, the community is still split.
“There are two totally different ends of the spectrum. There are people in the community who are cheering on the killer or killers. Then there are people who are outraged by the shootings,” Nixon said.
Nixon is against any management of the herd, which she maintains would be unhealthy — which it isn’t — if there were too many individuals.
“I personally think they should just leave them alone. The Black Mesa Ranger District is over 600,000 acres. How can 400 horses be too much?” she said.
Madril plans to carry out the “marching orders” in the management plan, which he thinks strikes a fair balance for ranchers, horse advocates, and people who use the forest for recreation.
“The horses are like everything else out there — you have to maintain a balance, and that’s our job, to maintain a balance among all of the uses out there,” Madril said. “In the legal sense, the Wild Horse Territory has a preference for horses. We’re obligated to give preference to the horses there. If we do our jobs right, then there will never be a problem between the horses and the livestock.”
Nixon visits the horses almost daily. A U.S. Army retiree who also had a 20-year career in corporate America, she devotes much of her time to casually tracking and monitoring the herd. In spring, it’s not unusual to see 60-70 horses near the town of Heber.
The horses, which range across wider area than the cattle, don’t congregate around watering holes the way cattle do, which scars the land, she said, and grazing — both cattle and horses — helps reduce wildfire risk.
“Every horse out here is a firefighter,” she said.
The management plan came after a two-year collaborative working group of stakeholders including horse advocates, scientists, multiple federal agencies and ranchers. Michael Schoon, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, headed that effort.
Schoon and the rest of the working group, which ended work about two years ago, declined to help promote the management plan, which he said isn’t adaptive enough and focuses too narrowly on the wild horse territory. That legally protected area is a small part of the herd’s natural range, Schoon said.
“We understood the reality of the Forest Service, that they couldn’t just expand that territory,” he said.
Captured horses would be handled in various ways. Some could be put in “paid” pasture land, which the Bureau of Land Management.
Schoon thinks the horses have a place in the national forest and thinks they can fit into a healthy ecosystem.
“At the end of the day, I’m probably like a lot of people who go up there and get excited about seeing them in the wild. I recognize that there are limits, but it’s pretty fantastic to be out in the forest and see these animals.”
The Forest Service is expected to have a final draft of the Heber Wild Horse Management Plan by the end of the year and a final version by spring, Madril said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Betty Nixon’s name.