“We have no precise words for how the wolf was known and loved or feared…”
m1572 on his last day. Photo by Michele James
The story begins with a wolf standing by the side of the road. This isn’t the story you might think. There’s no helpless girl, no feckless pigs, no trickery. What there is, is hunger. Hunger for food, as always, and a hunger to roam. The woods are broad. Even though they are cross-stitched with fences and pocked with houses that must be avoided they extend on and on and they are rich with the tracks and scents of deer and elk and rabbits. The going is not difficult and it’s easy to find places to hide in rocky outcrops, thickets, copses of oak. It is only the roads themselves that are the challenge. It is second nature to figure out the trajectory and velocity needed to intercept a deer fleeing along a grassy meadow edge but the speed on roads is incalculable, incomprehensible, and the crossing is a gamble.
Or: the story begins with a young man, almost a boy still, on the side of the road. There’s no hunger, at least not of the deep-seated kind the wolf feels, the in-the-bones aching for protein. The suburbs are fat and if anything it is too easy to be sated: not only by food in a million varieties, but also by the sinuous winding of the well-kept roads, the smooth expanses of lawn, the houses kept up to a fare-thee-well, the friends and acquaintances who all seem to accept it as a given. It’s all too easy, too shiny, too manicured. No, this hunger is of a different sort. Call it a need for emotional protein.
In my case the result was a pickup truck, the smallest kind you could get, because in my particular Midwestern suburb a pickup didn’t belong and so it was a way of expressing that magic word west. Or West, specifically, meaning far enough west that things were no longer flat, manicured, predictable. And the pathway was those big ribbons of road, so well known and comfortable from all those days and nights spent traversing the broad avenues, the winding cul-de-sacs. You could merge onto one as if you were a piece of flotsam tumbling into a river from a creek, and not emerge from the steady current until hundreds of miles later. Merge is exactly right: on the interstate you can enter effortlessly not only into the flow of traffic but into a comforting anonymity, hiding in plain sight. Camouflaged and safe.
We have no precise words for how the wolf was known and loved or feared but we do know a lot about his early days, how he was born as part of a litter of pups on the northern part of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. We know this because he and his littermates were captured and radio-collared early on because that’s what biologists do with Mexican wolves when they can get their hands on them. And we know that the wolf that came to be known as m1572 turned up lame only a couple of months after that initial capture and was re-captured and brought to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to be treated. And we know, because of the radio-collar, that m1572 was after that sometimes alone, sometimes with his pack. This was from the spring into the fall of 2017. His sister, f1570, died. His brother, m1571, sometimes traveled alone too, once roaming way up onto Navajo lands, where he was re-captured and sent back south to what federal and state officials deem the official Mexican wolf recovery zone.
I remember the feel of those early days alone in Arizona, the sense both of boundless possibility and of getting further out on a limb, away from family, away from what I’d known. There were more ways than before that things could go right, and there were more ways that things could go wrong. At that time the story of Chris McCandless immortalized in Into the Wild had come out only recently, the tale of how one young man had gone Way Out West and ended up dead in the Alaskan wild. Dispersing from home—it seemed necessary, but treacherous.
For biologists, the idea is that species need to experience some genetic mixing, so in some species—especially predators—some of the young disperse to find their own place. It’s always a risky prospect full of grapplings with new and unknown landscapes. By October m1572 was traveling on his own, covering long distances on White Mountain Apache land. In November he headed west, onto the Coconino National Forest. This had happened before with individual wolves but only rarely.
I washed up safe and sound in Flagstaff and came to surround myself with some of what I had left behind: family, house, steady job. It’s my territory, home, and it’s in that setting that we decided to drive down to Phoenix for my birthday. So this part of the story begins with one of the rare snowy days this winter. Traffic on the I-17 was moving slow. I was driving. Up ahead on the slushy shoulder I saw an animal form. My mind did a quick sort: Elk? Too small. Deer? Not the right shape. Coyote? Awfully big. Dog? Maybe. We slowed and stopped on the shoulder. The animal was bushy, stocky, broad-shouldered, with a lush pelt. We were just talking about how we should get out to see if it was a lost dog when it turned and we saw its collar: not that of a dog, but a wide, chunky one, that of a wild animal that has been deemed in need of tracking.
It was a wolf, an animal I’d heard in Arizona before but never seen, and we were glad to see that it ran off from the road into the snowy woods, and not so glad to see that it was limping.
But this isn’t the story you might think, about an exciting wildlife sighting and some revelatory or even spiritual message one might draw from it. No, this is a story about how later that day m1572 was killed on the road, a failed dispersal by an animal that couldn’t quite manage the human-managed landscape. It’s a sad story, just as stories of young people who don’t make it through are sad. Though it’s worth noting that m1571 is still out there, at least as of the end of February, roaming with a female wolf from a different pack. So maybe it’s a story about hope too, hope that we can have a world where the young of all species can do the exploration they need to do and end up where they ought to be.
Peter Friedericiis a writer and a former itinerant field biologist and tour guide who in his spare timedirects the Master of Arts Program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University.
Two Horses and a Mule Died of Dehydration in Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves Forest
Washington, DC — An attempt to criminally prosecute U.S. Forest Service employees for acts of cruelty to animals resulting in the death of two horses and a mule has been dropped, according to court records posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The dismissals followed an assertion of federal sovereign immunity in order to block prosecution in state court.
More than most federal agencies, the U.S. Forest Service uses horses and mules in its daily operations. Consequently, care and maintenance of equine livestock is an important duty on many national forests.
But there was a major breakdown of those responsibilities on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. In May of 2016, two horses (named Snip and Diesel) and a mule (named Little Bit) were moved out of the forest’s corral to a place aptly called Rattlesnake Pasture, which had not been occupied by horses for at least a decade because it had no reliable water source.
The animals were left unattended for four weeks without water during the hottest time of the year, with temperatures in the area ranging from 105 to 112°F. In late June, someone finally checked and found all three animals dead from dehydration.
An internal Forest Service investigation produced a final “report” that was only one page long yet was a model of obfuscation. It concluded that:
“Contributing to this unfortunate outcome was a compilation of past practices, unknown policies, poor communication, failure of leadership, local fire conditions and accretion of duties to an inexperienced employee.”
In short, the Forest Service held no one to account. Greenlee County took a different view and in April 2017 filed nine misdemeanor animal cruelty counts stemming from the animals’ deaths against two Forest Service employees, including the district ranger (who has since retired) responsible for livestock care.
“Local Sheriff allegedly believes disgruntled gardener could be responsible…”
HEBER, Ariz. – A Heber man is concerned that someone is shooting wild horses in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. Robert Huchinson says he found two dead wild horses in the forest this week, both with gunshot wounds.
He says the horse carcasses are about 5 miles from his home. He’s lived in the area for 25 years. Huchinson says he’s not sure who is responsible, but says bear hunters may be to blame. He admits he’s a wild horse lover, but knows some people in the area are not.
The Arizona Department of Agriculture animal services department tells 12 News shooting wild horses is illegal anywhere in our state.
Jim Molesa of the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office says his agency is investigating, but has no leads at this time. He says there are some people near Holbrook who look at the horses as pests, rather than majestic animals. He adds the animals are sometimes known to trample gardens and vegetation…(CONTINUED)
Mustangs canter across land in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The U.S. Forest Service says that there are several hundred horses in the area and argues that the population isn’t wild and needs to be controlled. (Photo: Photos by Tom Tingle/The Republic)
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.
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.”