“Crisis point” for Arizona’s wild horses as roundups begin

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This older mustang stallion is named “Wanagi,” a Sioux name meaning “ghost”. He usually lives on his own and keeps in remarkably good health in spite of his age, estimated at over 20. Picture taken near Pierce Tank on June 1, 2021.
This older mustang stallion is named “Wanagi,” a Sioux name meaning “ghost”. He usually lives on his own and keeps in remarkably good health in spite of his age, estimated at over 20. Picture taken near Pierce Tank on June 1, 2021, © Craig C. Downer

Wildlife ecologist Craig Downer fears it is “the beginning of the end” for wild horses in Arizona, following the announcement that the US Forest Service is to auction horses from the Apache National Forest.

The roundup in the million-acre forest was to get under way on March 21, and the USFS intends to sell the first 20 horses on March 30. The service is apparently looking to round up 400 horses from the remote area, a move that has been condemned by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group.

“A surprising and short seven-day notice by the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest does not give the local community any chance or due process for input on this decision. We are calling for better and more humane solutions such as fertility control, and we are willing to help,” the group said, adding that if the horses are brought to the Holbrook auction, they “are almost certain to end up in slaughter plants in Mexico”.

“This auction is frequented by known kill buyers who do not like to be outbid. Kill buyers buy horses at these auctions and truck them to Mexico where the cruelty and slaughter of these innocent horses is unimaginable,” the group said.

The removal of the horses is in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

Downer describes the horses as “convenient targets in the political scheme of things”, and said that reports indicated the USFS is “letting local ranchers gather them around Alpine and many are now being removed”. He said the roundup signalled the “beginning of the end” for the wild horses.

“It is a crisis situation,” Downer said. “It will be the beginning of the near-total removal of all the ASNF wild horses over a vast area.”

He applauded the Salt River wild horse groups in defending the wild horses “who benefit the ecosystem and prevent catastrophic wildfires and bolster ecotourism”.

Wild horses at Pierce Tank drink at an aluminum trough amid the pines. May, 2021.
Wild horses at Pierce Tank drink at an aluminum trough amid the pines, in May 2021. © Craig C Downer

“These horses have been here for many generations and were here at the passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA), which gives them the right to live here in their legal wild horse Territory. The Forest Service is committing malfeasance when it ignores the rights of these national heritage species,” Downer said.

He said the CBD had “always worked against the wild horses regardless of the abundant supportive facts for their continued harmonious presence in the Apache National Forest and the Alpine Ranger District”.

Downer has completed a report on the Heber wild horses and their legal habitat in the Mogollon Rim region of eastern Arizona, and, because of the attention the herd has received over several decades, proposes it become a study herd under Section 10 of the WFHBA. His study of the wild horse herd and habitat assessment took place between May 24 and June 4, 2021, in the proposed Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT) in the Black Mesa Range District (BMRD) and some adjacent habitats, all within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) in the original Sitgreaves NF.

The Sitgreaves National Forest portion of this combined management area is located in the southern parts of Navajo, Coconino, and Apache counties, and comprises up to 880,000 acres.

“According to historical archives, the wild horses of the ASNF have occupied this extensive area since at least the year 1653 and most probably long before,” Downer said.

He said that given the logging of ponderosa pines, major cattle grazing and trophy elk, deer and other game hunting, it was surprising that the ecosystem he examined was functioning as well as his transects indicate.

“The impacts of vehicles and roads, fences to accommodate the intensive trampling and grazing by cattle, as well as frequent vehicle entries – all combine to disrupt this ecosystem. I propose that the wild horses themselves are major mitigators of ASNF’s ecosystem-disturbing impacts and contribute very positively to maintaining its integrity,” Downer said.

“The USFS under the Department of Agriculture claims to manage for about 7100 wild horses and 900 wild burros on about 2.5 million acres of National Forest lands in nine states. The USFS has decided that out of 53 original wild horse and burro Territories, only 34 will be ‘active’ and 19 will be ‘inactive’. It also indicates that 24 of these are jointly managed with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Department of Interior.

“Basically, it has extremely minimized wild horse and burro herds and their habitats in its jurisdictions. When I examined the list of territories on October 6, 2021, the Heber WHT was glaringly absent, indicating possible plans for its elimination.”

A Heber mustang heading for a barbed wire fence, in late May 2021. "Often such fences greatly restrict access of the Heber horses to their legal habitat to favor livestock interests, especially when gates are closed out of season."
A Heber mustang heading for a barbed wire fence, in late May 2021. “Often such fences greatly restrict access of the Heber horses to their legal habitat to favor livestock interests, especially when gates are closed out of season.” © Craig C. Downer

Downer said the “overly restricted”, proposed 19,700-acre HWHT would “thwart the establishment of a healthy, ecologically well-adapted and thriving wild horse population”.

“The ASNF’s extremely low and genetically non-viable population assignment of 50 low to 104 high for a mean of 77, along with the tacit denial by the ASNF of the wild horses’ legal and viably sized habitat – even when including the additional Territory Monitoring Zone (TMZ) – would cripple the wild horse presence in its original legal area in the ASNF that long-time, knowledgeable wild horse monitors claim extends well over 616,000 acres and could even be 883,120 acres.”

» Contact Craig Downer on ccdowner@aol.com, +1-775-901-2094, or on Twitter @Craig73473329 for more on the Heber wild horse study.

ASNF wild horses separated by a barbed-wire fence, pictured on June 3, 2021, near Chimney homestead. 
ASNF wild horses separated by a barbed-wire fence, pictured on June 3, 2021, near Chimney homestead.  © Craig C Downer

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6 thoughts on ““Crisis point” for Arizona’s wild horses as roundups begin

  • March 21, 2022 at 11:50 pm
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    A systemic dismantling of the ecosystems that sustain our planet to cater to special interest groups driven by selfish short term greed.

    Reply
  • March 22, 2022 at 9:03 am
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    Yes, they are ignoring the crucial role that naturally living horses play in ecosystems and all the millions of years of their co-evolution. This is a crime!

    Reply
    • March 23, 2022 at 5:37 am
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      Come to the Wild Horse and Burro Rally on Saturday April 23 2023 between 1 and 4 pm at state Capitol throughout USA. Here in Nevada that’s in front of Nevada State Legislature at 401 South Carson Street, Carson City, Nevada 89701 on sidewalk by tall old fashion black clock tower

      Reply
  • March 24, 2022 at 11:55 pm
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    If these horses are removed and slaughtered in Mexico then EVERYONE needs to know who is responsible for this total atrocity, the Center for Biological Diversity. We can all thank them for the terror and suffering these horses will endure while this will do NOTHING to protect those mice or anything else. Arizona has been under a terrible drought for most of 20 years – maybe the CBD hasn’t seen or heard about Lake Mead? Hoover Dam is 35 feet away from not being about to produce power. In the Lake Havasu area where I’ve lived for 50 years I know what should be here but isn’t – there are no lizards, no snakes, no bugs, no plants growing, because there’s been NO RAIN. Where’s my hummingbirds? We’re even seeing dead and dying Palo Verde trees. If they are so worried about these mice they can catch and raise them and if the drought ever ends they can then release them… as has been done with wolves and condors, etc. The CBD should change its name to the Center for Biological Shortsightedness and Narrowmindedness.

    Reply
  • March 25, 2022 at 12:00 am
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    PS there should be no fences in our forests and on our public lands. Ranchers do not own that land, their fences are not “improvements” as I’ve seen BLM declare them to be which they then reimburse some if not all of their pathetically low grazing fees for. These fences are dangerous nuisances and should not be allowed.

    Reply
  • March 25, 2022 at 7:58 pm
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    Terry: It is indeed a shame how the “big interests” with their “blind traditions” concoct justifications and lay the blame on such a beneficent presence as the returned native naturally living horses, who are really healers and restorers of biodiversity and balance in the life community!

    Reply

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