With dozens of horses slaughtered on federal land, wildlife activists say protections are lacking

Earlier this month, at least 25 horses were shot and killed in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, which span 2 million acres in central and eastern Arizona, according to reports. wildlife activists.

Their remains were left to rot.

It’s just the latest of many intentional killings of horses and other animals on federal lands — a horrific trend that has thwarted authorities and left some activists furious about how agencies classify and treat wild horses.

Wildlife activists say they discovered the latest slaughter while in the woods documenting the horses. They began finding the carcasses last week as volunteers came across scenes of horses with gunshot wounds to the head, heart and lungs along Forest Route 25.

“These are techniques that hunters use,” said Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, who saw the corpses. “It really is an absolute massacre in the forest. It’s absolutely awful. … There are only whole families lying together.

The Netherlands suspects the death toll is much higher.

In addition to the 25 dead, four injured horses were alive, while 25 were missing on Sunday, she said, “and we are confident they are dead.” She is certain of this because horse families “stick together like glue.” When they find a single survivor, she explained, that means the other family members are dead somewhere.

“It’s an absolute atrocity there. The horses are scared to death,” Netherlands added. “You can see horses running around trying to look for their families, calling out to each other.”

Sadly, that’s not the only atrocity the Apache-Sitgreaves horses have experienced.

According to a Forest Service press release, the horse-related incidents at Apache-Sitgreaves include:

• Fifteen dead discovered in January 2020. ‘Preliminary information indicates the deaths of the horses were caused by gunshot wounds’ in at least eight of the fatalities, but some ‘other carcasses were too decomposed to determine the cause of death “.

• Two privately owned horses were found dead on September 30, 2019 on forest land. A suspect was arrested 11 days later.

• “The tragic loss of 19 horses” from October 2018 to May 2, 2019. “We share the public’s sadness and concern,” the Forest Service said, “and we are committed to investigating these unfortunate incidents to translate perpetrators to justice”. The cause of the deaths was undetermined, but the agency called them “criminal incidents” and said the horses died of “other than natural causes”.

Earlier this month, another federal office, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), announced a $20,000 reward, funded by the agency and the National Mustang Association, in the November fatal shooting of five wild horses in Jakes Valley, Nevada. “The remains were located within 600 meters of each other. An aborted fetus was attached to one of the dead animals,” BLM reported.

The Jakes Valley murders “are far from an isolated incident,” a BLM spokesperson said. Other gun murders documented by the BLM include two wild horses in the Spar Canyon area near Challis, Idaho in November; “46 wild burro carcasses with gunshot wounds” found along Interstate 15 between Halloran Springs, California, and Primm, Nevada, May through October 2019; 13 wild donkeys near Beatty, Nevada, in May 2018; seven feral horses found between November 2018 and January 2019 near US Highway 287 in Wyoming’s Red Desert; three female feral donkeys near Lake Pleasant, Arizona, in May 2016; and a wild horse in October 2015 at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center near Carson City. The agency did not provide any information on the arrests in these cases.

The Forest Service says it is still investigating wildlife activists’ reports of the Apache-Sitgreaves killings. The agency said in a statement that it is “coordinating with local authorities and law enforcement to confirm facts.” The agency said it was not aware of any arrests other than one in the September 2019 case and was unaware of that outcome. State and local authorities did not respond to requests for information.

The motive behind the murders too is not certain.

But the Netherlands argues that the Forest Service is not doing enough to protect the animals on its land. Whereas BLM uses the term “wild horses”, the Forest Service refers to “unlicensed livestock”. These unauthorized horses, according to the Forest Service, are “introduced by accident, neglect, or willful disregard of private property.” Horse advocates, however, argue that the Apache-Sitgreaves horses have been around for centuries. “They are historic,” Netherlands said.

The Dutch organization and the American Wild Horse Campaign complained in a statement that the Forest Service “did not designate these horses as free-ranging wild horses, thereby removing any possibility of federal protection under the 1971 law. on free-roaming horses and burros. …Without federal protections, these horses are classified as “unlicensed cattle.” “Organizations say 400 horses live on the Apache side of the country.

The Netherlands argues that “they should be protected from murder and harassment and managed by humane fertility control on the ground, which is not only more humane but also more cost-effective and effective in reducing the population in the long run. term”.

But the Forest Service and other wildlife groups say the classification is needed because invasive horses threaten native plants and animals.

The Forest Service said it was moving forward with “the necessary removal of a number of unauthorized livestock, commonly known as feral horses” because they “cause substantial problems not only for plants and native animals, which compete for resources, but also destroy watersheds and negatively impact ecosystems, and pose an imminent threat to several federally listed and threatened species.

A coalition including other wildlife activists and hunters supports the agency’s plan. Two of the organizations, the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson and the Maricopa Audubon Society in Phoenix, sued the government in 2020 because an “adorable jumping mouse is being pushed closer to extinction.” The lawsuit said the agency failed to protect the jumping mouse from environmental harm caused by horses. Praising the 2021 agreement to settle the lawsuit, Mark Larson, former president of the Maricopa Audubon Society, went on to say that “hundreds of destructive wild horses need to be rounded up before they do more damage and drive these mice more close to extinction”.

“We don’t know who shot the horses,” Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said by email. “But no one should confuse this tragic and illegal act with the necessary and orderly lawful removal of horses now being undertaken by the Forest Service.”

Either way, many horses are being kidnapped, not by auctioning them off as the government had planned from Saturday to Monday online – but by killing them by outlaws.

“It’s an absolute travesty,” Netherlands said. “It’s absolutely a forest of horror right now.”

About Wanda Reilly

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