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The Wild Heber Horses

Part III: What will the future hold for the Heber Wild Horses?

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In recent months, the United Stated Forest Services (USFS) has outsourced a team of experts to analyze the Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT), in order to project future use of the land. According to Apache Sitgreaves National Forest (ASNF) Public Affairs Officer Pam Baltimore, when the findings have been analyzed of any changes in conditions and what impacts may have occurred since 2001 after the Rodeo-Chediski, they will be shared within the ASNFs Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).  She continued, “After the ASNFs finishes the analysis process there will be recommendations made for the Draft EIS. Public involvement and input will be sought after and those comments will be reviewed and considered for the Final EIS.”
Currently, the forest lands provide vegetation that sustains the lives of wild animals such as deer and elk, livestock on highly regulated permitted parcels, and an ever-growing population of wild horses. As stated within USFS guidelines, the Heber Wild Horse Territory is designated to first support the local wildlife, then the remaining resources should be equally shared between the wild horses, deemed ‘wild’ by definition within the Wild Horses and Burros Act of 1971, and the cattle permitted to graze the land. Recently, the increased population of horses on the HWHT has become a concern for USFS workers. After sampling key vegetation areas, forage availability was found inadequate to support the ever growing wildlife populations dependent on the land. Therefore, measures must be taken to ensure appropriate recovery conditions exist to maintain the health of forest lands, while extending vegetation and forest resources to meet the needs of local wildlife.
In 2002, the Rodeo-Chedeski fire burned approximately three fourths of the HWHT. Recovery efforts and analysis have continued to build an upward trend in soil stabilization, vegetation growth and overall forest health. The Rodeo-Chedeski fire also increased pressures to the forest lands by displacing horses living within reservation lands onto the adjoining HWHT. Because the fence line was down, the reservation horses crossed over and most likely interbred with the Heber herd. Although there’s no way to determine exact numbers of displaced horses that remained on the HWHT or the amount of reproduction caused by the displacement, the issue of gross overpopulation must be addressed with reasonably implemented solutions. Also, according to the ranchers who work in the grazing allotments, reservation horses seeking greener pastures was not a one-time occurrence, but is an ongoing problem.
In parts one and two of the HWHT coverage, we identified the main stakeholders affected by the possible removal of the majority of horses from the territory. A non-biased approach was taken, and the position of each stakeholder was considered and reported within each article. In summarization to this story, understanding all points of view and how each stake holder will be affected by the removal or continued support of the horses living within the territory, the position of USFS is one that best identifies the appropriate approach to dealing with this issue. The health of forest lands and the vitality of its resources must be the most important factor in determining the size of the horse population to remain on the HWHT. USFS has determined the appropriate range between 28 to 35 horses, allowing other wildlife supported by these lands adequate resources. Monitoring with several procedures in set areas around the forest, USFS will track the improvements to rangelands and identify any issues or additional measures that must be taken to bring the forest back to desired conditions. Mogollon Rim News intended to get a formal statement from USFS representing their position in this matter, but since the HWHT analysis is still underway, there is no criteria to determine future plans for the horses or the HWHT as of yet.
Given that USFS has the authority and responsibility to conduct this analysis and implement strategies to mitigate negative impacts upon the forest lands, it appears useless to argue any component of future planning. However, there is one factor that poses concern and should be further clarified. In the past, horses removed from US forest lands were sent to auction. If the horse did not sell, it would be destroyed as a last resort. This, does not seem like a reasonable solution to an already complex issue. If there were any portion of this proposal that requires community engagement, the possible destruction of the horses removed from the HWHT should be the common factor worth arguing against. Responsibilities of long term care for the horses should not fall to USFS as a responsible party, but alternative arrangements should be explored that can protect the horses from euthanasia. Efforts should be made to find living or boarding arrangements such as existing horse sanctuaries, state or government programs already active that incorporate horses into rehabilitation services for children and adults with disabilities or addictions.
An example of such programs not so far from home would be ‘The Meadows’, operating in Wickenburg, Arizona. The Meadows is a prestigious trauma and addiction recovery center that places emphasis on the healing powers of equine therapy; for both the patient and the horse to benefit from. Working together on a common goal, such as this, not only strengthens community reach as a whole, it strengthens the bonds we have with one another. The issue of the horses on the wild horse territory identified something very significant about this community we are all a part of – it showed how much we truly do care. No matter the position you side with regarding this issue in general, we can come together in attempt to seek a better future plan for the horses, should they face removal from HWHT. Combining our efforts, a community project could be formed to find that lifeline so necessary to save the lives of our horses…that have been a piece of the fabric that has molded Heber for so many years. Such an effort would ensure the horses were a part of our community, no matter where they may go.
We don’t expect the information from USFS to be forthcoming anytime soon, but will print any pertinent information we may receive going forward.