ild horses drive an emotional wedge between public-land users who believe the animals are either persecuted or a plague. Arizonans like horseman Robert Hutchison want unbridled herds across the range, while those like hunter John Koleszar want to rein them in to protect other species.
The Heber Herd is Exhibit A in their struggle.
The Heber horses inhabit the forest south of Highway 260 and the Mogollon Rim town of Heber. They are readily approachable in bands numbering in the dozens. Unlike some wary herds in other states, some of the Hebers will allow a photographer to walk among them, and will even approach to investigate the lens.
Over the past two years, Hutchison called, wrote or emailed every influential person he thought might come to the Heber horses’ defense.
A young wild horse grazes on rangeland in the Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests near Heber. The Heber Herd has grown in numbers and competes with livestock and wildlife for resources.
A governor. Some legislators. Robert Duvall, star of the TV Western “Lonesome Dove.”
Costner. Redford. Stallone.
“They’re unreachable,” Hutchison said.
“They think every blade of grass is theirs.”
He rode his domestic horse through wild-horse territory in the Arizona rim country to rally support for a herd he considered endangered. He organized a horseback rally last May because he fears the U.S. Forest Service will remove the mustangs he loves to watch and photograph, and will call it environmental protection.
The long-haired, retired former construction worker, who favors cowboy garb, even wrote to Donald Trump before the billionaire entered and won the presidential race. He was hoping in vain that a celebrity real-estate developer might come to the mustangs’ rescue.
Individual horses that have been photographed.
The people love horses, Hutchison reasoned, and the people own federal lands.
“We own the forest,” he insisted.
He was speaking broadly of the many Arizonans who strongly support wild horses, and not his rancher neighbors who argue the herds need culling so the public lands can keep feeding cattle and people.
“They think every blade of grass is theirs,” Hutchison said.
Koleszar is among the hunters, ranchers and ecologists who argue that unregulated horse populations across the state are trashing deserts and grasslands and pushing other animals off watering holes.
The Heber Herd’s range on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests also supports deer and elk. Hunters have worked for years to improve conditions for those species.
Koleszar, president of the Arizona Deer Association, has hunted there since the 1980s and noticed a big change after a horse herd that had seemed to disappear re-emerged in the 2000s.
“It’s pretty good … It tastes like meatloaf.”
Arizona Deer Association president
“If you go over behind Overgaard or Heber now it’s just covered with horse droppings,” he said.
They’re “majestic animals,” he conceded, but, “when a single species takes precedence over all other species, then you’re going to have some major problems.”
The Arizona Deer Association spends tens of thousands of dollars a year installing watering systems to aid wildlife, but Koleszar said horses soon take them over.
Koleszar co-hosts a weekly Phoenix radio show for hunters and anglers. At times he has used it to pitch a potentially inflammatory solution that he thinks could improve the land and eliminate millions of dollars in taxpayer costs that pile up when the government rounds up and holds horses indefinitely.
In this scene from “Running Wild,” John Koleszar eats a tin of horse meat during a radio show. He thinks that horses should not be protected at the expense of other species.
He suggests exporting wild-horse meat to Europe and putting the proceeds into land restoration.
“It’s an incredible protein asset,” Koleszar said. “While we find it appalling to eat horse meat, other countries consider it a delicacy.”
To prove it he brought a $15 tin of imported German horse meat to the station one Sunday morning last summer and cracked it open on air. He ate it with Wheat Thins and smoked provolone slices.
“It looks an awful lot like Spam,” he said as he peeled the lid away to release a briny stewed meat scent. Then he dipped a plastic spoon in the tin and tasted the meat.
“It’s pretty good,” he said. “It tastes like meatloaf.”
John Koleszar, president of the Arizona Deer Association, holds a can of horse meat that a friend brought back for him from Germany.
Predators and hunters don’t keep horse numbers in check the way they do with deer, he told listeners. Overseas markets could, if the government would allow it.
“If I had to have this as my last meal,” he said as he finished the tin, “that’s pretty darn good.”
Similar debate about the Salt River horses
As the horse walks, the Salt River band lives a long day’s saunter southwest of the Hebers.
Last summer Tice Supplee of the Audubon Society strode effortlessly between the mesquites overlooking the Salt River on the edge of metro Phoenix, unhindered in a sparsely forested plain where horse manure had replaced tall grass and shrubs. Supplee’s hunch is that cattle first nibbled the native plants to the ground, but that the horses are now keeping them down.
A Salt River wild horse crosses the Bush Highway near an area where the herd roams. The Salt River horses have drawn intense public interest in Phoenix. (Michael Chow/The Republic)
It’s a problem because riverside thickets are rare in the arid Southwest and yet crucial for migrant species of songbirds, the endangered Southwest willow flycatcher or yellow-billed cuckoo.
The Salt River needs all the help Arizona can muster to return it to a bird-friendly stretch of native willows and cottonwoods. A growing horse herd will impede the effort, she said.
She likes horses — she’s a horse owner herself — but fears their permanent, free-roaming residence in and around the river will strip away other life and even leave the horses vulnerable to starvation.
Wild horses graze along the Salt River east of Phoenix. The horses are a popular sight for many, conservation advocates say the animals have damaged the river habitat.
“The ideal would be to manage them just like cattle,” she said, “and be able to take them out of these bottoms seasonally so they’re not here 24/7.”
In 2015 Tonto National Forest officials wanted to round up a band of about 100 horses that frequent the river. They announced their intentions based primarily on the safety hazard the animals posed to highway motorists, though some wildlife advocates applauded because they said the horses were mowing down critical bird habitat.
Thousands more horse backers objected online. Dozens took their protest to the state Capitol. Much of Arizona’s congressional delegation wrote to the Forest Service, asking why it wasn’t instead working with Arizonans to produce a herd management plan.
Supporters of the Salt River wild horses protested and stopped the Forest Service’s plans to remove some of the Salt River horses. (Isaac Hale/The Republic)
The agency isn’t required to write such a plan, because these horses and this herd zone weren’t enshrined in the 1971 federal act protecting wild horses. By some accounts, that’s because most of them likely were released from farms or simply wandered into the area long after that legislation.
Horse advocate Simone Netherlands and her Salt River Wild Horse Management Group argued forcefully that the horses belonged. They contend the horses improve habitat by fertilizing the soil.
“These wild horses have been here for centuries,” she insisted, “and this is the most abundant habitat all along the Salt River.”
The outcry worked. The Salt River horses remain.
Robert Hutchison advocates for the wild horses that live in the area around Heber, on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
Horses are ‘a national treasure’
Robert Hutchison’s proclamation that “we own the forest” echoes doctrine oft-repeated by horse lovers across the West.
The horses, they say, are a national treasure that would get along just fine if not for some “greedy” ranchers leasing federal grazing lands.
That’s why Congress adopted the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Protection Act of 1971, he said.
The Heber Herd, unlike the desert-dwelling Salt River Herd east of Mesa, run in and around a zone of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests that Congress intended for horses. They’re officially protected, but also subject to the agency’s management.
It’s not always clear, at least to the Forest Service, how many deserve to roam.
The Heber horses are protected by the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, unlike the Salt River horses. The law requires the government to develop management plans for the herds.
“These horses have managed themselves for 400 years.”
The herd has drawn scrutiny as it grew to about 400 after the massive Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 opened up a lot of formerly dense ponderosa pine forest on the Mogollon Rim. Hutchison personally has photographed 230 individual horses there.
The fire restored thick grasses and freed up water the trees had used, potentially aiding the horse herd’s growth. But ranchers also insist that the fire burned fences and loosed other horses — some tame, some from the neighboring White Mountain Apache Reservation — to roam into the area.
Horse advocates don’t deny there may have been some mixing with domestic horses during or after the fire, but they argue that has happened periodically for centuries.
How one Arizona man is using wild horses to change lives in an Arizona prison.
“These horses have managed themselves for 400 years,” said Robin Crawford, who helps lead a group of horse enthusiasts that is trying to ensure the Forest Service maintains the herd.
Now, she said, they’re “in dire straits of dying.”
The activists fear the herd will die out because the Forest Service is considering management options that could include a removal into captivity. The agency plans an environmental study of management options, possibly taking several years.
How many horses are too many?
Previously the foresters determined that the 19,000-acre horse territory had been abandoned and was free of horses before the 2002 fire, but advocates went to court to ensure they wouldn’t remove the alleged “trespassers” without first writing a new plan that involves the public.
Foresters don’t want to eliminate the herd, Apache-Sitgreaves spokeswoman Marta Call said, but they do worry about crashes on Highway 260 and they must consider competing demands on forage and water.
“We have to decide how many that territory can support,” she said.
Late afternoon sun lights up the face of a horse from the Heber Herd in eastern Arizona.
The answer is fewer, said Kathy Gibson, a 53-year-old vegetable seller who grew up on a Heber-Overgaard ranch and whose brother still runs cattle. Her mom still lives on a third-generation homestead, though the fire destroyed the original house.
The people calling ranchers greedy don’t consider that ranchers hauling and storing water are the ones who make life possible for horses on a dry forest, she said.
“We know for a fact that these horse are not wild horses.”
Heber vegetable seller
“The tradition of ranching and the food source it provides for our country are very important — no less important than a horse,” Gibson said.
She doesn’t mind seeing a few horses, she said, but the more the herd grows and expands outside of its designated territory, the more it will take resources from others. The land is meant for multiple uses including both recreation and commerce, like what her family has pursued for generations, she said.
“We have skin in the game,” she said.
Like Forest Service officials, she remembers a time before the fire when no horses roamed the area. Some then crossed over from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, she said, while others escaped backyards or were freed by owners who couldn’t afford to feed them during the Great Recession.
“We know for a fact that these horse are not wild horses,” she said.
Part of history or just cast-off horses?
As everywhere in mustang country, the facts surrounding these horses are hotly disputed.
The Hebers include many horses with facial features that appear to indicate Spanish bloodlines and a direct link to the explorers who first brought horses into the area on expeditions in the 1500s and 1600s, according to herd advocate Crawford.
In this scene from “Running Wild,” see how horses went extinct in North America only to be brought back by Western expansion.
“They’re a part of history,” she said. “They’re a part of the land. They’ve been here since day one.”
Others say there’s a link to early cattle ranchers who moved livestock into Arizona from Texas.
If either is true, the horses would have preceded the national forest’s establishment.
5 out of 175
Showed genes linking them to the conquistadors.
A Texas A&M University veterinary geneticist who has sampled the genes of wild horse herds around the West said few show any traits of Spanish bloodlines. Gus Cothran and colleagues wrote in a chapter of the 2016 academic book “Wild Equines” that, out of 175 herds sampled, only five showed genes linking them to the conquistadors.
They missed only a handful of herds living in the West, including the Hebers.
Most horses on the western ranges are related to common American domestic breeds such as quarter horses and Morgans, the scientists found.
Cothran said in an interview that he had not sampled the Heber Herd or Arizona’s other embattled herd, the Salt River horses. Even the other herds with individuals descended from Spanish horses generally showed a weak genetic link, he said, with the one exception being the Sulphur Herd of western Utah.
Wayne Ramey is a horseback riding guide who lives in Heber-Overgaard. He looks the part of an old-time cattle wrangler, jeans and pink Western shirt, blue eyes squinting through crow’s feet, a brown cowboy hat pushed back, a sandy mustache on his lip.
Wayne Ramey is a horseback riding guide who lives in Heber-Overgaard. He calls the wild horses a gift to people who visit the forest.
He grew up in a Laveen farming family and fished in the White Mountains as a youngster. He moved to the forest 20 years ago and, despite his kinship with farmers and ranchers, found the ranchers’ disdain for wild horses troubling.
“It’s like going back in time about 200 years. Reminds us of our pioneer days.”
Horseback riding guide
“They’re a tourist attraction for this forest,” he said. “Everybody that I take riding likes to see these horses. I love these horses.”
He spoke while standing in front of a band of mustangs doing two of the things they do most: eating grass and jockeying for mating position.
The largest stallion grazed warily until one or another of his younger competitors got frisky with a mare, and then he ran them off, nipping after them. Scars on a young male’s rump indicated it wasn’t his first attempt.
Whatever their origins, Ramey said, the mustangs are a gift to everyone who visits the Mogollon Rim.
“They’re a part of us, for crying out loud,” he said. “It’s like going back in time about 200 years. Reminds us of our pioneer days.”
Managing out of existence?
More than 10,000 people follow a Facebook page dedicated to the Heber horses. Advocates use it to update supporters on the herd’s legal status — and to post photos of horses roaming and frolicking among the pines.
Hutchison’s May ride in support of the horses drew a handful of the herd’s fans. They rode down rocky trails in search of wild horses, ultimately finding a group passing through camp when they circled back.
A member of the Heber Herd grazes on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
Along the way they saw elk here and there. To the riders, the grass seemed plentiful, more than the animals in the forest could eat.
Hutchison rides an Appaloosa, his own blond hair pulled back and spilling over a blue kerchief from under a white cowboy hat. His Western shirt depicts mustangs galloping across his chest.
He moved to Arizona’s rim country in 1989 and at the time enjoyed elk hunting. He remembers rolling his motorcycle across Highway 260, coming across a wild horse and thinking, “What a magnificent animal.”
He became a horse guy, and eventually stopped hunting when he became obsessed with ensuring the herd’s survival about five years ago.
“Since I got into this,” he said, “I can’t come out here and take a life while I’m trying to save (another) one.”
He has little trust in the government or its land and animal policies. He scoffs at a federal program that restored Mexican gray wolves to Arizona, in part because he believes they threaten young horses.
He insists that the government ships excess wild horses from roundups to Mexico for slaughter and sale to European diners — a charge that would be illegal and that federal horse managers reject.
“They want to manage them out of existence.”
Some horses rounded up on the Navajo Reservation likely still go south to slaughter, Navajo officials acknowledge, because the tribe sells them without restrictions and is not bound by the same law. The reservation in places is overrun with horses that compete with sheep and may cause desertification. Officials routinely trap and sell small bands.
Federally managed horses trapped in roundups, though, are adopted out, no more than four to a customer, and must remain in the adopter’s care for at least a year. After that, adopters gain title and are free to sell to anyone including foreign slaughterhouses, though by then the expenses of the year would have made it unprofitable to do so.
Those that are not adopted — the vast majority from any given roundup — are sent to government corrals or leased grazing lands on the Great Plains, where they spend the rest of their lives at government expense.
Those that are at least 10 years old or are offered for adoption and rejected three times become available for sale, but buyers are also restricted to four per year unless they get written permission and submit to extra monitoring. The limits are designed to make it unprofitable to try buying mustangs and trucking them to international slaughter markets.
Hutchison doesn’t believe it, and he doesn’t believe land managers want any horses on the range.
“They want to manage them out of existence,” he said, sipping Southern Comfort in a folding camp chair by his fire the night after his ride among the mustangs.
“As long as I’m sitting in this chair I’m not going to let that happen.”