Earlier this month, at least 25 horses were killed by gunfire inside the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, which stretch over 2 million acres across central and eastern Arizona, according to wildlife advocates.
Their remains were left to rot.
This is just the latest of many intentional killings of horses and other animals on federal lands — a gruesome trend that has stymied authorities and left some advocates fuming over how agencies classify and treat wild horses.
Wildlife advocates say they discovered the latest mass killing while in the woods documenting the horses. They began finding the carcasses last week as the volunteers stumbled across the scenes of horses with bullet wounds to their heads and their hearts and lungs along Forest Road 25.
“These are techniques that hunters use,” said Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, who saw the corpses. “It’s really an absolute massacre out in the forest. It’s absolutely horrible. … There’s just whole families laying there together.”
Netherlands suspects the death toll is much higher.
In addition to the 25 fatalities, four wounded horses were alive, while 25 were missing as of Sunday, she said, “and we are positive that they’re dead.” She is certain because horse families “stick together like glue.” When they find a lone survivor, she explained, it means the other family members are somewhere dead.
“It’s an absolute atrocity out there. The horses are scared to death,” Netherlands added. “You can see horses running around trying to look for their families, calling to each other.”
Sadly, it’s not the only atrocity Apache-Sitgreaves’ horses have known.
According to a Forest Service news release, Apache-Sitgreaves’ horse incidents include:
• Fifteen dead discovered in January 2020. “Preliminary information indicates the horses’ deaths were caused by gunshot wounds” in at least eight of the deaths, but some “other carcasses were too badly decomposed to determine the cause of death.”
• Two privately owned horses were found dead Sept. 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 are committed to investigating these unfortunate incidents to bring perpetrators to justice.” The cause of the deaths was undetermined, but the agency called them “criminal incidents” and said the horses died from “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 November’s fatal shooting of five wild horses in Jakes Valley, Nev. “The remains were located within 600 yards of each other. An aborted fetus was attached to one of the dead animals,” BLM reported.
The Jakes Valley killings “are far from an isolated incident,” a BLM spokesperson said. Other firearm slayings listed by 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, Calif., and Primm, Nev., from May through October 2019; 13 wild burros near Beatty, Nev., in May 2018; seven wild horses found between November 2018 and January 2019 near U.S. Highway 287 in Wyoming’s Red Desert; three female wild burros near Lake Pleasant, Ariz., in May 2016; and a wild horse in October 2015 at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, near Carson City. The agency provided no information about arrests in these cases.
The Forest Service says it’s still looking into the wildlife advocates’ reports of the Apache-Sitgreaves slayings. The agency said in a statement that it is “coordinating with the local officials and law enforcement to confirm the facts.” The agency said it is not aware of any arrests other than one in the September 2019 case and it does not know that outcome. State and local officials did not respond to requests for information.
The motive behind the slayings also isn’t certain.
But Netherlands argues that the Forest Service isn’t doing enough to protect the animals on its lands. While BLM uses the term “wild horses,” the Forest Service refers to “unauthorized livestock.” These unauthorized horses, according to the Forest Service, are “introduced by accident, negligence, or willful disregard of private ownership.” Equine advocates, however, contend the Apache-Sitgreaves horses have been there for centuries. “They’re historic,” Netherlands said.
Netherlands’s organization and the American Wild Horse Campaign complained in a statement that the Forest Service “failed to designate these horses as free-roaming wild horses, thus removing any opportunity for federal protection under the 1971 Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. … Without federal protections, these horses are classified as ‘unauthorized livestock.’ ” The organizations say 400 horses live on the Apache side of the land.
Netherlands argues “they should be protected from killing and harassment and managed through humane fertility control in the field, which is not only more humane but also more cost effective and more efficient in reducing the population in the long run.”
But the Forest Service and other wildlife groups say the classification is needed because invasive horses are threatening native plants and animals.
The Forest Service said it is moving ahead with the “necessary removal of a number of unauthorized livestock, commonly referred to as feral horses” because they “cause substantial problems for not only native plants and animals, which are being outcompeted for resources, but they also destroy watersheds and negatively impact ecosystems. They also pose an imminent threat to several federally listed and threatened species.”
A coalition including other wildlife advocates and hunters support 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 damage caused by the horses. Praising the 2021 agreement to settle the lawsuit, Mark Larson, previous president of the Maricopa Audubon Society, then said “hundreds of destructive feral horses must be rounded up before they do more damage and push these mice closer to extinction.”
“We do not know who shot the horses,” Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity co-founder, said by email. “But nobody should conflate this tragic and illegal act with the necessary, and orderly legal removal of the horses currently being undertaken by the Forest Service.”
Either way, many horses are being removed, not by auctioning them as the government scheduled for last Saturday through Monday online — but by outlaws killing them.
“It’s an absolute travesty,” Netherlands said. “It’s absolutely a forest of horror right now.”