Apache Sitgreaves National Forest has Created a Climate of Hostility and Resentment
In 1971 Congress enacted the Wild Horse and Burro Act. It was designed to protect the existing herds of horses and burros that were present at that time. The unintended consequences of this act have created massive problems and more litigation than any other species in the last 100 years.
In Arizona, a small portion of land in the Heber area was designated as part of the Wild horse and Burro act in 1973. There were identified as being seven horses at that time and the area was designated as being roughly 19,000 acres. During the 1980’s and early 1990”s, the horses in this area died out. By 1995, the Forest Service as well as the Arizona Game & Fish Department could not find a single horse living in the wild horse territory.
In 2002, the Rodeo – Chedeski fire ignited and destroyed over 500,000 acres of prime northern Arizona forests. With the conclusion of the fire, federal and state agencies began to attempt to re-seed and create suitable habitat for wildlife. A notable fact is that the boundary fence lines along the White Mountain Apache tribes land and the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest were completely destroyed in many areas. During the next few years, many of the feral livestock (horses) came over from the White Mountain Tribal lands and took up residency on the Apache Sitgreaves forest. By 2005, there were over 250 horses that the forest service announced intentions of rounding up and removing. Local residents of Heber who had become horse advocates went to federal court to stop the removal of the horses and pointed to the Wild Horse territory as the place where they should remain.
The federal court issued it’s ruling in 2007 and directed the forest service to create a management plan for the horses. The horse advocates considered this a win. The forest service, knowing that the plan needed to be developed did nothing for almost a decade. Conservationists all across Arizona have seen the dramatic changes in the forest areas of Heber and the horse numbers now are in the 500 head range.
If there is a culprit in this, it sits in the total lack of accountability with all of the forest supervisors and staff that have allowed the situation to fester over the past decade. I wrote several articles in the 2007 – 2010 time frames and indicated that a reasonable number of horses and a plan needed to be developed. The Apache Sitgreaves National Forest has created a climate of hostility and resentment as well as an entitlement attitude by the horse advocates. The 19,000 acres that were designated as the horse territory has been expanded now to almost all of what is referred to as hunting unit 3C. The “Wild” horses are no longer wild, they graze with impunity at camp sites and will even stick their heads in truck windows if you park along any of the dirt roads that cover the west end of the Apache Sitgreaves national forest.
They are often referred to as the “Bullies” of the range as they hoard water holes and drinkers to the exclusion of other wildlife.
Recently, the frustration level has escalated as many people have grown weary of all of the horses pushing all other wildlife out of the areas. The horse advocates have deliberately misrepresented the true facts of what is going on in the forest and have utilized their version of “Science” to suggest that over 300 horses could thrive in the wild horse territory. The truth of the matter is that if these were cattle, the forest would allow about 60 cows in the territory for grazing and they would have to be moved from pasture to pasture. A horse represents 1.7 cows in terms of forage consumption. Horses eat more because the food basically passes through their system while cows have a ruminant system that means they need less food. The standard that cattlemen are forced to comply to should be the same one that horses be faced with.As a prognosticator, I can forecast that the working groups activity in Heber will result in comments sometime this summer (If the forest service can find the time) and that a “Plan” will be put together. The wild horse advocates will scream in protest and file lawsuits so that the plan is on hold indefinitely. Sadly, there are a few people in the Heber area that are fanatical about “their” horses. These advocates do not care at all about any other wildlife, or the fact that these feral livestock are eating themselves out of house and home.
Last, but not least, illegal activity by frustrated people who do not share the passion that the wild horse advocates have will probably increase. More horses will become victims in this never ending drama. It is a shame that reasonable heads have not prevailed during this whole fiasco and that the forest service was beyond negligent in their responsibilities to the health of the forest. They have allowed some bullies to dominate and destroy what should have been a multi use forest into a drive through horse park.
Who is to blame? First and foremost are the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest employees. They completely allowed this mess to fester for over 10 years with no action. The forest in another four years will be decidedly worse off and the number of horses will double by that time. Shame on the horse advocates for not being reasonable. They want the whole forest and the way things are going they will soon have it. Pity all of the other wildlife that is being forced out by the Bullies of the Range.