Heber Wild Horse Territory: Frequently Asked Questions

1) Q: What is a wild horse?

A: “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 December 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 do not have the status of a wild horse under the Act.


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

A: After passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the Forest was surveyed for wild free roaming horses. The census completed in 1974 found seven wild free–roaming 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) Q: When did the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNFs) realize there were more horses than usual?

A: It was after the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski (R-C) fire which burned approximately 23 miles of boundary fencing that large numbers of horses appeared on National Forest lands, adjacent to neighboring tribal lands. There are many potential sources for these horses, including tribal and private lands. A proposed round-up of these horses after the R-C fire was litigated. The plaintiff’s position was that the horses were descended from the Heber wild horse herd and were entitled to protection under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. That litigation was settled in 2007 with an agreement to complete a territory management plan/strategy for the Heber Wild Horse Territory (HWHT). The ASNFs has begun the planning process by collecting resource, social and historical information.  This information will help identify issues, opportunities, and support the planning process.

An aerial survey of horses on the forest was completed in 2014.  At that time there were 14 adults and four foals within the designated territory, and another 184 horses observed on adjacent Forest lands.  Another aerial survey was completed in February 2015 and at that time there were 15 adults and one foal 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. The aerial surveys may not give the full answer as to total population size.

4) Q: Why was there a problem before the original proposed roundup?

A: 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 and the horses created conflicts with other landowners and users of the Forest lands.


5) Q: How did the White Mountain Apache Tribe become involved?

A: 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 purse any potential opportunities to cooperate in long term maintenance of the common boundary fence.  The Tribe, Forest, and permittees continue to remove fallen trees and provide annual maintenance of the fence.


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

A: 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. These planning processes took precedence over the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management Plan/Strategy. During the interim, horses continued to naturally increase in numbers and perhaps stray onto Forest Service lands from adjacent lands.


7) Q: What is the current status of the Plan/Strategy?

A: The Forest paused the planning process for the HWHT management plan in the fall of 2015 to pursue a change in approach to incorporate a broader public involvement strategy.  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 group has made great progress over the last year and is close to having recommendations to the Forest Service by early this fall.  The Forest anticipates having a proposed action developed by the end of 2018.   Public scoping of the proposed action is expected to occur early in 2019 and will be followed by the environmental analysis (National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)) and the Record of Decision for the HWHT management plan by 2020. The completed HWHT management plan follows the NEPA decision and will be completed in 2021.


8) Q: Has any field work occurred?

A: 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 the horse numbers. Riparian surveys were also completed during the summer in 2014 to assess changes in conditions since the initial field work was conducted in 2007.  Interviews of individuals with various associations with the territory have been conducted to better understand the horse population through time in relation to 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 in relation to horse movement and numbers. Resource conditions and forage production are currently being assessed within the HWHT to obtain an updated profile of existing conditions.


9) Q: How does the Forest Service deal with unauthorized or stray livestock?

A: Pursuant to the regulations at 36 C.F.R. 262.10, the Forest Service cooperates with the State of Arizona, Department of Agriculture on 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 a HWHT Management Plan is complete as stipulated in the court agreement.


10) Q: Is there a relocation destination in mind?

A: Relocation destination is not being considered at this stage of the project.


11) Q: Are there plans to increase the territory or the management area allowed for wild horses?

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


12) Q: 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? 

A: 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.  The findings will be shared during the National Environmental Policy Act process as part of the Heber Wild Horse Territory Draft Environmental Impact Statement.


13) Q: 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?

A: 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, therefore management actions may be needed within the territory to meet desired conditions.  Along with the proposed action, mitigating factors will be presented in the draft environmental impact statement.


14) Q: Generally speaking, why is it so important to manage animal populations?

A: The Forest Service is responsible for managing the natural resources on Forest Service lands they administer. These resources are managed under a multiple use – 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 we enjoy today. 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 to forage which would affect wildlife habitat including big game and threatened and endangered species, riparian habitats and watershed condition. A Territory management plan would help establish protocols so resource conditions are retained at a desirable level.


15) Q: Does the Forest have census monitoring on the horses from 1974?

A: The last year census monitoring reported horses present in the Heber Wild Horse Territory was 1993. From 1994 through 2001, no horses were seen in the territory. In 2004 through 2006, horses were being reported again and surveys completed since 2005 indicate the number of horses are increasing. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire occurred in 2002 and approximately 23 miles of fence was destroyed along the Fort Apache Indian Reservation boundary along with another 11 miles on interior fences on Forest Service lands. The White Mountain Apache Tribe claimed and gathered many of the stray horses following the fire but horses continue to stray onto and/or move freely on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.


16) Q: I’m told the Forest Service is conducting an environmental impact study on how the horses affect the land. What are the findings?

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


17) Q: What’s the latest on the public comment period?

A: Public involvement and input is encouraged throughout the planning process.  The Forest anticipates having a proposed action developed by the end of 2018.  The formal public comment period for the proposed action will begin when the Forest starts public scoping of the proposed action in 2019. The public will also be invited to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  Comments are reviewed and considered in the development of the Final Environmental Documents and Decision anticipated to be completed in 2020.


18) Q: When are the studies expected to be released?

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


19) Q: When would a final decision be made on what to do with these horses?

A: The environmental analysis process following National Environmental Policy Act guidelines is expected to take another two years to complete with a Decision by the end of 2020.


20) Q: Where would the horses go if they are rounded up?

A: 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. There are several management methods that 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 Decisions.


21) Q:  What is the latest on the collaborative process?

A:  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, just completed their work after a year-long commitment to providing input to the proposed action for the management plan.


22) Q: What did the Collaborative Working Group accomplish?

A: 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 is in the final stages for providing recommendations to the Forest Service for development of the proposed action for the HWHT management plan.


23) Q: Why was the collaborative process so important?

A: 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, controversial 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 was to foster engagement across a broad range of participants and perspectives, with the end result being recommendations to the Forest Service for the development of the proposed action for the HWHT Management Plan.


24) Q: Where does the management planning process go from here?

A: The Forest has assembled an Interdisciplinary Team of resource specialists to take the project through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. There will be opportunities for public involvement. The management plan is expected to be completed by 2021.