Heber Wild Horse Territory: Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a wild horse?

“Wild horse” is a legal status provided to unmarked and unclaimed horses and their progeny that were considered wild and free roaming on public lands at the time of passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (36 C.F.R 222.60 (b)(13)). Wild horses are managed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance in wild horse territories established under the Act. Any horse introduced onto federal lands including National Forest System lands on or after Dec. 15, 1971, by accident, negligence or willful disregard of private ownership is not considered a wild horse. Such horses are defined as unauthorized livestock. (36 C.F.R 262.10) Unauthorized livestock does not have the status of a wild horse under the Act.


2. What prompted establishing a Wild Horse Territory on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests?

After the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the Forest for wild horses. The census completed in 1974 found seven wild unclaimed horses on the Forest. A Wild Horse Territory was established for the horses in their location near the town of Heber, Arizona, and was named the Heber Wild Horse Territory. Over the next 20 the herd size remained very small. The last census of the Territory taken in 1993 found two mares.


3. When did the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNFs) realize there were more horses than usual?

It was after the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski (R-C) fire which burned approximately 23 miles of forest boundary fencing, private fencing, and range fencing that large numbers of horses started appearing on National Forest lands within or adjacent to the territory. There are many potential sources for these horses, including tribal and private lands.


4. Why was there a problem before the originally proposed roundup?

There were unauthorized animals that strayed onto Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests lands following the Rodeo-Chediski fire. Unauthorized livestock is subject to gather under Federal and State laws. The number of horses posed a threat of resource damage to burned areas recovering from the fires, the horses created conflicts with other landowners and users of the Forest lands.


5. How did the White Mountain Apache Tribe become involved?

The Tribe claimed and gathered many of the horses following the Rodeo-Chediski fire. However, the boundary fence continues to be a problem, allowing horses to stray back and forth onto Forest lands. The Forest meets periodically with Tribal representatives to any potential opportunities to cooperate in long term maintenance of the common boundary fence. The Tribe, Forest, and permittees continue to remove fallen trees, repair fence that is cut illegally, and provide annual maintenance of the fence.


6. Why has it taken so long to develop a Wild Horse Plan/Strategy?

The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests has been working on revising the Forests Land Management Plan, Travel Management planning and addressing resource issues from the historic 2011 Wallow Fire, which also changed the landscape. The ASNF also initiated the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management Plan.Several studies, inventories were and continue to be conducted. The Forest also paused the planning process for the HWHT management plan to incorporate a broader public involvement strategy. In 2017 Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability convened a collaborative group to help provide input and recommendations to the Forest Service for development of the proposed action for the Heber Wild Horse Territory management plan. The collaborative represented many points of views, and in working together was able to come up with innovative ideas and solutions for the management plan.The collaborative group has provided its recommendations to the Forest Service for consideration in developing the proposed action for the management plan.


7. What is the current status of the Plan/Strategy?

The Forest anticipates having a proposed action developed soon. Public scoping of the proposed action is expected to occur in 2020 and will by the environmental analysis (National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)) for the HWHT management plan in 2021. The HWHT management plan will follow the NEPA decision and in 2021.


8. Has any field work occurred?

An aerial survey was done in the spring of 2014, followed by another survey in February 2015, and the most recent survey was conducted in April 2017 to get a revised estimate of horse numbers. Riparian surveys were also completed during the summer in 2014 to assess changes in conditions since the initial in 2007. Interviews of individuals with various associations with the territory have been conducted to better understand the horse population through time and the original wild horses that occupied the Territory when it was established in 1974. These interviews also support the planning process by documenting observations of resource conditions, effects on wildlife habitat, and fence conditions horse movement and numbers. Data on resource conditions and forage production was recently collected in 2018 within the HWHT to obtain an updated profile of existing conditions and capacity.


9. How does the Forest Service deal with unauthorized or stray livestock?

Under the regulations at 36 C.F.R. 262.10, the Forest Service cooperates with the State of Arizona, Department of Agriculture on the management of unclaimed branded livestock; including gather of livestock, brand inspection, claims by owners, and disposition of unclaimed branded livestock. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests also works with the White Mountain Apache Tribe when it pertains to tribally owned livestock found on Forest Service lands. The Forest Service cannot remove any unmarked/unbranded horses on the Sitgreaves NF until an HWHT Management Plan is complete as stipulated in the court agreement.


10. Are there plans to increase the territory or the management area allowed for wild horses?

The boundary for the Heber Wild Horse Territory was designated in 1974 following the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, as amended. The designated boundary will be retained throughout the planning process to develop a territory management plan.


11. Could you describe how the Heber Wild Horses occupying the territory and adjacent lands are causing negative impacts to the land/vegetation and the other users' of the surrounding lands?

The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Heber Wild Horse Territory interdisciplinary team conducted field studies of the conditions of the landscape within the territory. The goal is to analyze any changes in conditions and what impacts may or may not be occurring from horses and other grazers on the landscape. These studies help inform the actions needed for managing the territory. The findings will in the analyses for the Heber Wild Horse Territory Draft Environmental Impact Statement.


12. If the horses’ negative impacts could be mitigated, would the Forest Service (FS) be willing to work toward a solution, allowing the horses to stay on the territory? Can the Heber Wild Horse Territory support the horse population at its current size on a long-term basis? If not, why?

The FS is committed to working with the public to develop a management plan for the Heber Wild Horse Territory. The management plan will determine the capacity for horses in the Territory and provide specific management actions based on the planning analysis. The Forests’ goal is to maintain a thriving ecological balance with the natural environment management actions may be needed within the territory to meet desired conditions. Along with the proposed action, mitigating factors will in the environmental analysis.


13. Generally speaking, why is it so important to manage animal populations?

The Forest Service is responsible for managing the natural resources on National Forest System lands. These resources under a sustained yield premise so the public can benefit from multiple natural resources and that future generations will be able to enjoy and utilize the natural resources now and into the future. Unmanaged horses can increase in numbers to a point where they exceed the ability of the land to support them and conflict with other uses of the land. There could be potential negative effects . A Territory management plan will help establish protocols, resource conditions at a desirable level.


14. Does the Forest have census monitoring on the horses from 1974?

The last year census monitoring reported horses present in the Heber Wild Horse Territory was 1993, and at that time there were only two mares left in the herd. While no official census were conducted from 1993-2004, from 1994 through 2001, no horses were reported to be seen in the territory. Post 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, in 2004 through 2006, horses were being reported again, and surveys completed since 2005 indicate the number of horses is increasing. Three aerial surveys of horses on or adjacent to the designated territory have been completed since 2014. The first survey occurred during May in 2014, at that time there were 14 adults and four foals observed within the designated territory, and another 184 horses observed on adjacent Forest lands. A second aerial survey was completed in February 2015, and at that time there were 15 adults and one foal observed within the designated territory, and another 201 horses observed on adjacent Forest Lands. During the most recent aerial surveys in April 2017, an average of 27 horses were observed within the HWHT, and 272 horses were observed roaming on adjacent ASNFs lands. These aerial surveys were designed and analyzed by a statistician to provide a 90% level of confidence on the range of population numbers within the designated territory.


15. ‚ÄčI’m told the Forest Service is conducting an environmental impact study on how the horses affect the land. What are the findings?

Data collection of environmental conditions is in progress. Development of the draft proposed action for the Territory Management Plan will start the environmental analysis (National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)) and the involvement phase of the planning process. As part of the NEPA documentation will include the proposed action for the HWHT Management Plan, any mitigating criteria, issues, direct, indirect, and cumulative effects to natural resources, and any social and economic aspects.


16. What’s the latest on the public comment period?

Public involvement and input are encouraged throughout the planning process. The formal public comment period for the draft proposed action, currently under analysis, will begin when the Forest starts public scoping of the proposed action in 2020. The public will also be invited to comment on the Draft Environmental Assessment. Comments are reviewed and considered in the development of the Final Environmental Documents and Decision anticipated to in 2021.


17. When are the studies expected to be released?

The studies that are being conducted will be incorporated into the NEPA analysis and project record.


18. When would a final decision be made on what to do with these horses?

The environmental analysis process following the Environmental Policy Act guidelines is expected to be completed with a Decision by the end of 2021.A management plan with implementation guidance will be developed following the decision.


19. Where would the horses go if they are rounded up?

This will be addressed in the management plan that is being developed. Based on the outcome of the HWHT Management Plan and NEPA Decision, any unclaimed branded livestock will follow the regulations at 36 C.F.R. 262.10 for the impoundment and disposal of horses as unauthorized livestock; including public notice and cooperating with the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Several management methods are in general use for horses classified as wild, including gathers (excess horses could be gathered and adopted out or placed in long-term holding facilities) and use of contraceptives to bring the horse numbers in line with the appropriate management level identified for the territory. Management actions would depend on the final National Environmental Policy Act Decision.


20. What is the latest on the collaborative process?

The collaborative working group, guided by the convener-facilitation team of Arizona State University and Southwest Decision Resources, and comprised of a variety of voluntary participants such as interested citizens, representatives of non-governmental organizations, academics, cattle growers, scientists, horse advocates and participating agency representatives, completed their work and have provided their recommendations for the proposed action and development of the management plan.


21.What did the Collaborative Working Group accomplish?

After setting goals, and defining roles and expectations, the group (along with subject matter experts) developed a communications plan, studied adaptive management principles, and outlined desired conditions for the HWHT. To tackle key issues and develop specific recommendations the group divided into two sub-groups, with one group looking at forage and ecosystem health and the other horse populations and management. The collaborative group has provided their recommendations to the Forest Service for development of the proposed action for the HWHT management plan.


22. Why was the collaborative process so important?

Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability convened the collaborative effort as part of the Universities interest and commitment to supporting science-based management decisions on complex, issues that also have social support. The collaborative process helped to provide a forum for listening, learning and discussion. The purpose and scope of the process to foster engagement across a broad range of participants and perspectives, with the being recommendations to the Forest Service for the development of the proposed action for the HWHT Management Plan.


23. Where does the management planning process go from here?

The Forest has assembled an Interdisciplinary Team of resource specialists to take the project through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The draft proposed action for development of the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management Plan will be sent to people and organizations who have indicated an interest in the NEPA planning process.There will be at least two opportunities for public comment. The planning process for development of the management plan is expected to be completed by 2021.