So far this year, 15 of the iconic wild horses associated with the American West have been found dead in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest
Authorities know from necropsies what killed four of a dozen wild horses that were recently found dead in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The iconic symbols of the American West were shot. Now, investigators want to know who shot the horses — part of the federally protected herd of Heber Wild Horses that have roamed Arizona’s Rim Country for centuries — and why.
The horse killings have been going on for some time. At least 15 have been shot since the beginning of 2020, according to park officials. And from October 2018 to mid-2019, at least 19 other wild horses from the herd were reported dead, 11 from gunshot wounds.
In a statement, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests officials asked people to stay away from the area where the wild horses roam, during the criminal investigation. It is coordinated by park law enforcement officials, federal equine experts and the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office.
The Black Mesa Ranger District asked people who encounter dead or injured horses to call 928-535-7300.
A conviction for causing the death of or harassing a federally protected wild horse or burro carries a maximum penalty of a $2,000 fine and a year in jail under the U.S. Code. Arizona animal cruelty laws could come into play as well. The Heber horses and others on federally managed land have been protected since 1973.
The Heber Wild Horses Freedom and Protection Alliance said on its Facebook page that Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests police have “offered no transparency as to what they are doing to solve this crime and make our forest safe.”
“It has been over a year since the mass killings of the federally protected Heber wild horses began,” the group wrote Tuesday. “Already in 2020, 15 more wild horses have been fatally shot. Having a shooter or shooter(s) in the forest who have no respect for life or the laws puts not only the remaining wild horses at risk but also the people who visit the Sitgreaves National Forest.”
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests spokesman Steve Johnson did not immediately return Patch’s request for comment. He told the Arizona Republic in July that Forest Service patrols were increased in and around the area in response to the dead horses, and that the agency was working with Arizona Game and Fish wardens, as well as the Navajo and Coconino county sheriff’s offices.
The Spanish wild horses protected at the national forest are descendants of the mighty Andalusian war horse, whose origins date back more than 28,000 years. They have roamed Arizona’s Rim Country since they were brought to the area by a Catholic priest in 1653, according to a 2007 resolution in the Arizona Legislature honoring the Heber Wild Horses.
“Our Arizona Rim wild horses are the direct descendents of the Spanish horses prized by the conquistadors so highly that the foals were carried in hammocks to protect their legs until they were old enough to travel on the forced marches; and prized by the early cattlemen for their endurance and heart and were the very mounts of the U.S. Cavalry as they rode to protect and expand the American West,” the resolution said.
“The Arizona Rim Country wild horses living in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests are 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 Arizona BLM manages eight wild horse and burro herds on about 2.3 million acres of public lands. Since 1971, the agency has removed 11,000 of the animals from public lands as part of its ongoing effort to maintain healthy horse and burro herds and healthy grasslands.
Once removed, they’re offered to the public for adoption, and those that aren’t adopted are cared for on open pastures for the rest of their lives.
Another famous herd, the Salt River wild horses, roam the Tonto National Forest. They were rounded up by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group after the U.S. Forest Service posted notice in 2015 of its plans to impound and remove them, then sell them at public auction.
Response was swift, and the horses are now protected under the Salt River Horse Act, and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group is under contract with the Arizona Department of Agriculture to humanely manage them under a rare partnership.
However, the group warned that the battle for their protection isn’t over, as Tonto National Forest plans to construct a nearly 4-mile metal fence along the banks of the Salt River that could block the horses’ access to water and their habitats on both sides of the river, putting them at risk for dehydration and starvation.
“We are alarmed that the Forest Service did not consider the fence’s negative impacts to the Salt River wild horses, who are protected under state law, and to the thousands of kayakers, tubers, hikers and wildlife viewers, who enjoy this beautiful area of the Tonto National Forest,” Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, said in a news release last week. “We call on the Forest Service to suspend construction immediately and explore alternatives.”
The plan also calls for fencing along Bush Highway to keep the horses off the roadway — an admirable goal, the Salt River horse protection group said, but one that will reduce the historic horses’ habitat by about half. If the fencing is erected, the horses will be concentrated where people are, increasing the likelihood of their removal.
“We believe that cutting the Salt River wild horses off of half of their historic habitat and building fences to keep them away from the river is not consistent with the state law that protects the Salt River wild horses, which mandates that they be protected ‘where they have historically lived,’ ” Netherlands said.