Home Featured Story The Wild Heber Horses – Part II: Is the Rancher an endangered...

The Wild Heber Horses – Part II: Is the Rancher an endangered species?

Part II of a three part series.

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Photo courtesy of Mary Hauser/Saddle Bag Photography

The possible removal of the free-roaming horses from the Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT) is an issue weighing heavily on the minds and hearts of local residents. Many believe the horses are a part of Heber history that should not be discarded so easily. Although it may seem to horse supporters that the national forest has plenty of grassland available to support the ever growing horse population without degradation beyond the guidelines set by United States Forest Services (USFS), other factors must be considered when forming a clear conclusion. The land currently occupied by the horses also provides habitat to native wild animals such as deer and elk. Although this factor alone may not lead to gross degradation of forest lands and resources, it is a contributing factor. Another source of concern initiates from past trauma to the forestlands, caused by fire and drought, as these factors determine the vitality of grasslands and the stability of soil conditions. USFS guidelines state ‘The number of wild horses maintained on the HWHT will depend on existing rangeland health, the predicted severity of droughts, and forage utilization guidelines. Forage will be available first to wildlife and then balanced between wild horses and permitted livestock.’

The Horses occupying the HWHT must divide forest resources with cattle, as it is stated in USFS guidelines. It seems taboo to even bring the words ‘cattle’ or ‘rancher’ into conversation these days around the horse people in Heber. Prior to conducting my interview with the ranchers of Heber, I had some of the same stereo-typical thoughts running through my head that many community members have voiced… ‘the cattle are stealing resources from the Horses and being given special considerations, the ranchers are pals with local USFS workers and the ranchers best interest is what concerns USFS’…these concepts could not be further from the truth.
Due to the fact the article was scheduled for submittal during the same time period the ranchers were shipping cattle, I was unable to schedule an interview with the local ranchers directly, but was able to interview the sister of a well-known Heber rancher. I was nervous as I prepared for the interview, feeling as if I may have such a different outlook on this issue that hearing the rancher perspective may be too hard to swallow. I approached the house of Kathy Gibson, the sister of Larry Gibson (a well-known Heber rancher that has been running cattle for decades) and as the front door opened, I saw five cowboys surrounding the kitchen table! They were anxiously awaiting my arrival. Although they were swamped with preparations to move out the year’s cattle population, they unanimously agreed this interview was important enough to take a few precious hours out of their day to spend with me.

Pictured from left Justin Blasingame, Lane Perry, Rodney Porter and Larry Gibson
Pictured from left Justin Blasingame, Lane Perry, Rodney Porter and Larry Gibson

I was greeted properly, with formal introductions, a shake of the hand and a tip of the hat. The ranchers included: Larry Gibson, who currently handles 50 sections of cattle and is employed by a family owned ranching outfit outside of Arizona (1 section=1 square mile), Rodney Porter, who owns his own cattle and is the forth generation in his family line to ranch in Heber, Lane Perry, another long time cattle rancher, Kenny Garvin, who manages Heber Water and occasionally assists Larry Gibson, and Justin Blasingame, a rancher from Texas who was here lending a hand.
Kenny Garvin began our conversation, stating “First of all, there ain’t anybody in here that doesn’t love horses. We all do. We rely upon horses to run cattle and couldn’t support the work a rancher does without them. This isn’t about loving horses. It’s about the challenges we face due to the overpopulation of horses in the HWHT and surrounding lands.”

The conversation was then directed to Larry Gibson, who very humbly, told the story of his personal challenges as a rancher, and the ways in which his work actually supports the HWHT horses. “Nine out of the last 10 years these lands have experienced drought conditions, and water availability has not been adequate to support the wildlife on HWHT. I deliver the water to fill the stock ponds when this occurs at a cost of $4 dollars per 1,000 gallons of water. My tank holds 4,000 gallons of water and I will make four trips daily to meet the needs of my cattle. The horses and other wildlife rely on these water troughs just as much as our cattle do. Even if it were possible to deny the horses’ access to the water I bring in for my cattle, that wouldn’t be the proper thing to do. I don’t want to see any animal suffering due to a lack of basic resources, such as water. That is unnecessary cruelty. So it may cost me extra money, time and wear on my vehicle to supply it, but I do it because it is necessary.”
As permittees of USFS land, another responsibility that falls upon the ranchers is maintaining the fence lines which are mended as soon as possible to prevent straying cattle. The ranchers say many times the feral horses damage the fencing that they fix on their dime. According to Gibson, “The stallions of separate bands will have territorial disputes, and they will often take down fencing as they ward off outsiders from entering. A second problem that exists is the fencing along the reservation border, that when damaged, allows horses from the reservation to cross into Apache Sitgreaves forest land for greener pastures. This continuing migration is an ongoing concern that should be addressed in whatever is to be the final solution.

The horses consume a large amount of the land resources, especially in the riparian bottoms which limits the number of cattle allowed to forage forest lands yearly. The rancher pays for 35% usage of land resources and is responsible to monitor his use. Gibson’s company pays a third party $5000 a year for the monitoring. The horses’ appetite is included in the rancher’s 35% that he pays for and is responsible for. Except for the rancher, who manages how much of the forest resources the horses use? No one.

“In the 1980s,” Porter explained, “I had 217 head/section permitted to graze but now I’m only allowed 80.” There was no debate among the ranchers, current conditions have made life difficult for them. Profits have declined in response to the land limitations, and making ends meet has become a tougher goal to accomplish.
Some community members believe ranchers are overcome with greed and have intentions to take over the HWHT for cattle grazing, but these men fear they may be in jeopardy of losing leasing rights in lieu of the free roaming horses. The ranchers seemed like humble, good-hearted, family-oriented people, living modestly within their means. Love for family seemed to be the driving force present among these men…and a love for the cowboy lifestyle. Men of honor and hard work, which hardly defines a position of greed.

Many horse supporters believe the cattle are of little concern, and that there has never been a need to protect cattle rights as the need exists to protect the Heber horses. But, without clearly researching the necessity of cattle raising and how it affects our lives personally, we aren’t forming a clear picture of reality. Many of us are meat eaters – we eat burgers, enjoy fast food restaurants, and a good cut of steak is a treasured delicacy. But, do you ever consider what process was executed to get that cut of beef onto your dinner table? Did you ever think about what the animal you are eating has been fed throughout its lifetime? Some of us simply think our meat comes from the grocery store, and a thought never strays beyond that. But the process of getting meat to your table is far more complicated. Some beef is raised in humane conditions that allows the animals to roam freely eating gains and grass. Other beef is in controlled environments such as cages or pens, which tend to be overpopulated and disease ridden. This type of intolerable raising conditions require the animals have antibiotics to control the spread of deadly diseases as well as many farms pump hormones and steroids into the animals to gain a better weight, equaling a bigger profit to the farmer.

The Heber ranchers are among a dying breed of Ranchmen, still allowing nature to determine the size and health of their cattle. Gibson stated “Our cattle are completely hormone free, grass-fed and only given the required immunizations after birth to ensure the health of the herd. We actually sign a formal statement that promises our cattle have not been injected with hormones or non-natural forms of dietary supplements prior to their sale.”
When analyzing the necessity of forest lands for the horses on HWHT, we must consider the consequences that lie ahead for humans, should we choose to alienate ranchers from utilizing these lands. Human diets consisting of hormone treated beef can develop a resistance to antibiotics used to treat infection, can cause premature growth patterns among our children and teenagers, while providing the human body with less vitamins and nutrients than organically raised beef provides. Think about your own values and where you stand regarding the meat that you eat. What is more important to you…ensuring the food provided to your family is healthy and safe to consume, or standing up for the rights of the free-roaming horses of Heber?

What will become of the Heber Horses? Whether some will stay or go – these types of complex issues are never one-sided, and there are many stakeholder positions to consider.

The US Forest Service, which is under the US Department of Agriculture, has yet to weigh in on our topic, but I’ve reached out to them with a few questions and hope to bring more on their perspective in a future issue of the Mogollon Rim News. Read Part III What will the future hold for the Heber Wild Horses?