Home Featured Story The Wild Heber Horses – Forest Foe Or Friend? Part I

The Wild Heber Horses – Forest Foe Or Friend? Part I

This is the first part in a series of three articles on the Heber Wild Horses. Each article strives to represent the viewpoint of one of the stakeholders: Part I: The wild horse enthusiasts; Part II: The rancher perspective; Part III: Summary to date - waiting for the US Forest Service's Environmental Impact Statement.

Photo courtesy of Mary Hauser/Saddle Bag Photography

Horses have played a significant role in American history, allowing for the expansion of markets and trade across the wide open expanses of our country. Therefore, they hold a place of value in our culture and in the American psychi as a creature honored for its beauty and friendship.


Technological advancements over the last two centuries have left the wild horse, which is a non-native species in America, almost non-existent, and has required an Act of Congress to protect them. According to the ‘Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act’ of 1971, qualifying horses are protected against removal from public, protected lands unless proven that the horses are overpopulating, or causing destruction to the habitat due to other factors. The Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT) was established shortly after the implementation of this act, and is the only preservation area within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Currently, tensions have risen between local residents of Heber/Overgaard and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the division of government regulating and maintaining the wild horse territories. Plans to thin the current wild horse herd living in the HWHT from more than 150 horses down to between 28 and 35 horses is the cause of controversy.

The preservation area (HWHT) which includes 19,700 acres of land set aside for the free-roaming horses along with the public lands neighboring the preservation are included in protection laws. The issue boils down to certain legal factors, such as exactly which horses are protected by the ‘Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971’. The act states, “Horses arriving onto public lands after December 15, 1971, do not automatically acquire the status of a wild horse under the Act. Any horse introduced onto the Forest on or after December 15, 1971 by accident, negligence or willful disregard of private ownership is not a wild horse. Such horses are defined as unauthorized livestock. Furthermore, the USFS has been monitoring the horses through a recorded census that began in 1974. At the time, seven horses were accounted for and considered protected by the act. Specific notations indicated the stallion of the group was thought to be sterile, since no foals had been seen in several years. In 1975, Forest Service records indicated the number of horses had fallen from seven to five. Again in the early 1990’s, numbers had dwindled down to only two mares accounted for out of the original seven. This in itself may be enough legal documentation for the USFS to deem most of the horses currently residing on HWHT as unauthorized livestock and not protected by the act of 1971.

Many local residents have taken a position against the removal of the horses from HWHT and believe there are sufficient resources for the horses to continue residing here with proper management. Mary Hauser, a professional photographer and resident of Mesa, AZ, regularly visits the horses living on HWHT. She has spent weeks at a time camping in the forest, following the horses in order to capture the story of their lives. Recently, I was lucky enough to join Mary on one of her visits into the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest to meet the horses. As we approached the first band of horses, my attention was immediately drawn to the lead stallion. Watching with a cautious eye, he allowed us to enter into the sacred space they occupied. From that moment on, it was clear just how much trust Mary had built in her relationship with these horses. The whole band seemed to welcome us into their space, and soon enough the two young females of the group were walking up to say ‘hello’. My heart stirred as tears welt up in my eyes…this was truly a beautiful moment representing the kinship between human and horse, created centuries before my existence.0H1A5818

As the two young females approached, Mary turned her camera and used the leg of the pod to distance herself from the youngsters. “I never allow them to touch me”, she stated. “The horses that are willing to take food from humans or allow humans to handle them will be the first to go.” This is a serious problem, because many local residents enjoy visiting the horses and often bring snacks to feed them during their visit. If the USFS moves forward with their proposed plan to thin the horse population, there are certain guidelines they will follow to determine which horses are ‘wild’, and which show signs of domestication. The Scoping Summary for the Heber Wild Horse Territory Environmental Analysis, lists the Criteria for Determination of which Horses will be Removed from the Territory after Gathering. The third listed criteria for determination states: Any horse showing acceptance of human handling, such as allowing itself to be haltered or accepting handheld food, will be considered unauthorized domestic livestock. This determining factor does not seem suitable, since humans have been entering the forest to visit with the free-roaming horses for years. This factor alone negates the validity of using such criteria in determining a horse as ‘domesticated’ or ‘wild, free-roaming’.

Mary plans to continue her work with the horses, and has teamed with Michele Anderson to create community awareness on the issue. They began their outreach through a Facebook page, ‘Wild Horses of Heber’, where they invite all persons to ‘like’ their page and visit regularly to receive the latest news about the proposal to remove horses from HWHT.

Some believe that the underlying cause for the USFS to take such action stems from their relationship with local ranchers, who utilize adjoining grasslands to HWHT for cattle grazing. Scoping recently began for the ‘Heber Allotment Project’, which addresses the 157,000 acres of grassland permitted for 905 head of cattle to utilize through the months of May-October. Within the Scoping Summary, it recognizes “many of the existing grasslands have been encroached by pinion-juniper, and many of the woodlands are overstocked, resulting in conditions that are outside of desired conditions.” Although plans are incorporated within the project details to mitigate these factors, could the need to further open grassland for cattle be a legitimate factor in the removal of horses from HWHT? If this is so, should a certain amount of regard be given to the ranchers raising these cattle? Certainly, we value the opportunity to eat fresh meat that has grazed on healthy grasslands over choosing to eat a caged animal pumped full of steroids and antibiotics. When confronted with this very question, Robert Hutchinson, a local Heber resident and avid supporter of the Heber horse population answered, “Of course I want to have access to meat raised in a healthy free-range environment, but cattle have never had to fight to gain access to such lands. The act of 1971 was created because horses are and were, a dying breed which required certain protections to ensure their livelihood. It was necessary to establish then, just as it is necessary to uphold the act today.”
This article begs the questions, ‘Does the proposal by the USFS to remove most of the free-roaming horse population from the HWHT truly support the wants and needs of the community and does it uphold the protection to horses granted by the ‘Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act’ of 1971? Is there legitimacy to the claim that the HWHT does not offer adequate resources to house the current horse population, while maintaining the required healthy and prospering state of grasslands?

In the next issue, we will further explore this topic by discussing the environmental impacts of the Heber Horses to the HWHT, as well as gaining the perspective of the USFS and that of local ranchers. Is there a way for all stakeholders in this controversy to come to agreeable terms? Read Part II of Wild Heber Horses.

Photo courtesy Mary Hauser of Saddle Bag Photography
Photo courtesy Mary Hauser of Saddle Bag Photography