Federal officials are in the process of deciding how to manage a population of horses running wild on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests near the White Mountains. Some cattle ranchers in the area say they’re overgrazing range land, and want them removed. Others say they could be descendants of mustangs brought here by Spanish conquistadors, and deserve extra federal protection. Arizona Public Radio's Aaron Granillo reports.
Larry Gibson is a third-generation rancher in Heber. His barn is lined with dozens of haystacks – food for his 900 head of cattle. They also graze in the forest, but in recent years, Gibson says there hasn’t been as much to eat.
"A lot of these areas, you know, we go and measure the grass before the cows ever get there. There may be 80-percent usage before we ever get there," Gibson says. "If the horses have eaten the feed, you can’t bring your cattle up.”
In his own lifetime – 57-years – Gibson’s seen the wild horse population increase exponentially. He pays the Forest Service about $1,600 a month for grazing rights, and feels he’s not getting his money’s worth. Gibson believes there’s one solution to protect livelihood and land.
“So in my opinion, the best thing to with these up here would be remove every one of them. Whether they go to adoption, or, you know, I hate to say it, euthanized or to a slaughter plant," Gibson says. "I mean that sounds kind of harsh, but something has to be done with them.”
That’s something horse advocate and photographer Mary Hauser won’t accept.
"I don’t have any problem with these ranchers. They’re making a living." Hauser says. "But I don’t think that our land should be stripped of our heritage and our wild horses."
Hauser has been taking pictures of the Heber horses for the past 14-years. On a recent afternoon, she drives to their official territory, established after the Federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. It's meant to protect them from sale or slaughter.
Hauser believes the horses she sees through her camera lens are related to a herd of Spanish mustangs brought to the Southwest centuries ago.
“Characteristically, they have an almond shaped eye. The shorter back. Their nostrils are thinner as far as the texture and thickness of the skin," Hauser says. "And that’s all the Spanish look. So that tells me that these horses really are carrying the blood of those Spanish horses.”
Historian Jo Baeza suspects that may have been true at the time the federal horse act was established.
"In 1540, Francisco Vázquez De Coronado came through the White Mountains with a huge entourage. Thousands of horses," Baeza says. "I believe that those were the original horses of the Mogollon Rim -- the descendants of Coronado’s herd."
But, Baeza says over the years, that bloodline has been diluted by horses brought to the region by other people, including the White Mountain Apache and the US cavalry. And in 2002, she says, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned stretches of fence line, allowing horses to wander between federal and tribal land boundaries.
"So it’s hard to say if they don’t have a brand on them. It’s hard to say where they came from. I don’t think there’s any way other than testing the DNA," Baeza says.
That's something the US Forest Service is not proposing at this time.
Christopher James is a district manager on the Apache Sitgreaves-National Forests. He says they’re currently gathering information for an environmental impact statement to address land management issues, including competition for food with cattle and other animals. They’ll also evaluate how many horses the land can support. Right now, there are about 300.
"We have to determine the proper stocking level of wild horses and that’s really all that we’re doing right now," James says. "We’re not making decisions on how horses would be rounded up or removed or anything like that.”
Without DNA testing, there’s no way to know if the the Heber horses truly are descendants of Spanish mustangs. Even if they are, officials at this time aren’t certain whether that would afford them some type of extra protection. A public comment period is set for this summer, with a final management plan expected sometime next year.