“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 years 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 identify 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 and inventories were 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 came up with innovative ideas and solutions for the management plan. The collaborative group 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 Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests has prepared a draft environmental assessment (EA) and draft territory management plan (TMP) for the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management Plan Project. Public comment period for the Draft Environmental Assessment is anticipated to begin in March 2021. Following this comment period, comments received that are specific, substantive and timely will be considered and addressed as appropriate. A draft decision notice and finding of no significant impacts (FONSI) will be prepared and circulated. The EA, FONSI and draft decision notice are subject to the predecisional administrative review process (objection process) Following the objection period, a final decision notice will be issued. The Final Territory Management Plan will be issued concurrently based on that final decision.
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 are included in the Heber Wild Horse Territory Draft Environmental Assessment.
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 that may be needed within the territory to meet desired conditions. Analysis of the current horse population and potential impacts related to the size of the population are addressed in 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. I’m told the Forest Service is conducting an environmental impact study on how the horses affect the land. What are the findings?
The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests has prepared a draft environmental assessment (EA) and draft territory management plan (TMP) for the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management Plan Project. Public comment period for the Draft Environmental Assessment is anticipated to begin in March 2021. The Draft EA will be posted for public review once the comment period is initiated.
16. What’s the latest on the public comment period?
Public comment period for the Draft Environmental Assessment is anticipated to begin in March 2021. This will be the last designated opportunity for public comment for this project. Only those who submit timely and specific written comments will have eligibility to file an objection under 36 CFR 218.8.
17. When are the studies expected to be released?
The studies that are being conducted have been incorporated into the NEPA analysis. The Draft EA and supporting documents, will be available to the public at the beginning of the comment period in March 2021. Please see the link for project information to access these documents.
18. When would a final decision be made on what to do with these horses?
Following the 30-day comment public comment period, anticipated to begin in March 2021, a draft decision notice and finding of no significant impacts (FONSI) will be prepared and circulated. The EA, FONSI and draft decision notice are subject to the predecisional administrative review process (objection process). Following the objection period, a final decision notice will be issued. We anticipate this to be completed in late 2021. The Final Territory Management Plan will be issued concurrently based on that final decision.