Scientific journal highlights dire plight of Arizona’s wild horses

A band of wild mustangs drinks at a water tank that is replenished by volunteers from Heber-Overgaard, Arizona. Named by locals "Old Man," this famous white stallion is in remarkable shape for his advancing age, of about 20 years. Pictured in the proposed Heber Wild Horse Territory in late May, 2021.
A band of wild mustangs drinks at a water tank that volunteers replenish from Heber-Overgaard, Arizona. Named by locals “Old Man,” this famous white stallion is in remarkable shape for his advancing age of about 20 years. They are pictured in the proposed Heber Wild Horse Territory in late May 2021. Dozens more pictures are shown in the study of Heber Wild Horses of Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. © Craig C. Downer

An extensive investigation into the wild horses of a US National Forest in eastern Arizona has been published in a special issue of Cheiron, a scientific journal focusing on horse-related history.

The research by wildlife ecologist Craig Downer outlines the issues facing the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) wild Heber horses and their legal habitat in the Mogollon Rim region.

In his in-depth study, which includes dozen of images, Downer notes that logging of ponderosa pines, cattle grazing and trophy elk, deer and other game hunting “seem to be the principal management goals of the Black Mountain Ranger District (BMRD) and the entire ASNF, while wild horse conservation is given minor priority”, Downer said.

Given the high disturbance of the area, Downer said it was surprising that the ecosystem is functioning as well as his research indicates. “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.

“These horses are facing near total elimination, and I think it is of paramount importance that we call attention to the grievous injustice that is in the works in hopes of stopping it,” Downer said.

Given the significant attention this herd and its habitat have received and the moderate growth it has demonstrated over several decades, Downer suggests that the Secretary of Agriculture declare the group of horses as a Study Herd under Section 10 of the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA).

A Heber mustang wallowing in soft earth, creating natural water catchments, massaging his skin and ridding his skin of parasites.
A Heber mustang wallows in soft earth, creating natural water catchments, massaging his body and ridding his skin of parasites. Note the well-shaped hooves from natural activity. Craig Downer: “I believe this rolling behavior also serves to readjust and properly align the skeletal bones, especially the spine, and that it may also help the vital organs of the horse.” © Craig C. Downer

Downer is a wildlife president of the non-profit Andean Tapir Fund / Wild Horse and Burro Fund based in Minden, Nevada. He has conducted pioneer telemetric studies of the Endangered Mountain/Andean Tapir, written and published peer-reviewed articles, chapters and reports on this species and given presentations at professional and popular conferences (both English and Spanish) as an IUCN SSC Tapir Specialist Group member. A fourth-generation Nevadan, he grew up in western Nevada, and eastern California riding his horse Poco and has written books, including The Wild Horse Conspiracy, articles and given numerous talks concerning North America’s wild horse and burro herds and habitats.

A healthy large bachelor band of Heber wild horses near the proposed Heber Wild Horse Territory. Many of these may never have their own family bands or be producers. Pictured on October 28, 2021, and contributed by a local wild horse monitor.

The issue also includes a response from Christine Reed, an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a wild horse photographer who has studied wild horses in the US and the Netherlands.

Reed describes the Heber mustang case as a “microcosm of a controversy throughout the American West involving wild horse advocates, livestock ranchers, and federal government agencies with jurisdiction over wild horse territories and herd management areas”. She has written several articles on wild horse protection policies published in the International Journal of Public Administration, Environmental Values, Society & Animals, and Ethics & Environment. Reed is the author of Saving the Pryor Mountain Mustang: A Legacy of Local and Federal Cooperation.

Cheiron editor Anastasija Ropa notes that the situation with the Heber horses parallels earlier history. “Throughout history, those equids that evaded domestication have been either pushed away from the lands used by humans or hunted to extinction. In the rare instances when ‘wild horses’ do appear in early records, they appear as the target of hunters unless these are free-roaming herds that are bred in the wild. In the USA, however, wild horses and burros are legally protected.”

Heber Wild Horses of Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests with 40 Ecological Transect Results and Herd Description. Craig C Downer. 
Cheiron: The International Journal of Equine and Equestrian History, Vol. 2, Issue 2/2022. 10.22618/TP.Cheiron.20222.2.132001

The “Young Prince” gazes hopefully toward the camera in the company of his family band while they graze in the proposed Heber Wild Horse Territory.
The “Young Prince” gazes hopefully toward the camera in the company of his family band while they graze in the proposed Heber Wild Horse Territory in late May 2021. Illegal exclusion of wild horses occurs in many places at various times of the year when pasture gates are closed even after cattle have been removed, according to witnesses. © Craig C. Downer.

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9 thoughts on “Scientific journal highlights dire plight of Arizona’s wild horses

  • January 1, 2023 at 6:20 am

    Thanks for your work & this report. Out here FS favors ranchers supported by “our” congressman Jared Huffman over native Tule Elk after removing them to claim they’re not native, returning them & now allowing cattle to drain or pollute any limited water left for Elk or

    • January 23, 2023 at 1:22 pm

      You’re welcome, Eva. Yes, it’s really renege on the part of our public officials/servants to show such bias and favoritism and forget about the Common Good, the General Public, and our Quality of Life. This must change! Let’s keep pressing for much needed reform along the lines of my recent article whose link is:

  • January 1, 2023 at 3:19 pm

    These horses as well as all the other wild horses in the country need to be protected. I frequently photograph the Heber herd, and they need to be protected and made a “study” herd.

    • January 23, 2023 at 1:24 pm

      Yes, indeed, Jill, they Absolutely Need to be Protected and given their Fair and Legal share of the resources at truly long-term-viable herd levels! We must insist on this. let’s keep in touch and continue to press for justice and to expose and eliminate corruption in government as among the citizenry!

    • January 23, 2023 at 1:26 pm

      Absolutely so they must be protected. Section 10 must be applied and these magnificent horses declared a study herd, not targeted for further outrageous elimination!

  • January 2, 2023 at 3:10 pm

    I’m so sick and tired of the BLM and the USFS wanting to remove wild horses and burros because they aren’t native, only to replace them with the ever so “native” herds of cattle and sheep.

    • January 23, 2023 at 1:27 pm

      The horse species is a deeply rooted native in North America and restores and enhances the ecosystem. To maintain otherwise is to buy into the prejudiced lies!

  • February 1, 2023 at 7:47 am

    After thousands of people writing in to support the “Leave them Alone” policy our gov. agencies still threaten to remove these horses to such a low number and sterilization that they will be no more. In the BLM handbook it even says to look at the land, who they share with and if healthy than keep leaving them alone. The land and the horses are indeed healthy even sharing with hundreds of seasonal livestock.
    Already the Dep. of Ag in another forest area (Theodore Roosevelt Nat’l park) has decided to remove the horses there even though the horses also have thousands of supporters for them to stay. Must be because DNA analysis came back and found TRNP horses carry dna never found in a domestic horse except in a 4000 yr old dig. So as fast as they can they are getting “rid” of these horses with both public and historical interest.
    The Heber horses are indeed influenced by ancient Spanish breeds, even without DNA analysis one can see by their gait, size and colorings. They are even more unique in that they have been “Left Alone” and have shown that horses do self regulate their population given their particular Factors (weather, shared resources, predators etc.).
    About 5 herds in Nevada were identified as Left Alone for over 10 years, (no roundups, no birthcontrol) but once identified they were rounded up before anyone could request to study those herds.
    Number one reason our very own government rounds up and destroys herds as quickly as they do is because of public attention of the herds and their habitat. Habitat and extractors damage.
    Public servants in land management seem to serve only a small fraction of interests. Lets change this, lets not let others with only finite goals destroy our most Native oldest N.American Mammal, the horse with historical, cultural and evolutionary significance.

  • February 2, 2023 at 1:21 pm

    Greatly appreciate your insightful input, Marly! Yes, it is such a shame what not only BLM but US Forest Service are doing in direct contradiction to the true intent and spirit of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act! These are the two agencies charged with defending and preserving thriving herds of wild horses and their unmonopolized (by livestock, mining, OHRers, etc.) legal habitats, but the are doing all the opposite. The are performing a wicked squeeze play on these wonderful deeply rooted and ecosystem-healing horses and burros. Yes, let’s change all this. It is just too egregiously wrong to allow to continue! Such a farce. Hope you will carefully read my report in Cheiron and view the photos. It reveals the greater truth and where true justice is to be found!


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