- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

HEBER, Ariz. (AP) - Residents in the eastern Arizona town of Heber are in disagreement with federal officials over whether free-roaming horses that have become part of the local landscape deserve to remain free.

The U.S Forest Service believes most of the horses trotting around on the public land are actually lost or abandoned. But supporters, including an Arizona congressman, say the horses were born in the wild and should be allowed to stay there as federally protected symbols of the West.

Federal officials said in an email statement earlier this month that the agency is developing a management plan that would not be completed until 2016, the Arizona Republic reported (https://bit.ly/1sjTFRI ).

Horse advocates and residents in the surrounding Navajo County communities on the Mogollon Rim say they still fear a roundup could happen at any time.

The “Heber horses” are considered part of the Heber Wild Horse Territory, which consists of 20,000 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The territory came about after the passing in 1971 of the federal Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act. The measure was designed to protect animals from sale and slaughter by hunters and ranchers. According to Forest Service officials, it’s unlikely that the original herd still exists. The protection would only be for those original wild horses and their descendants - not strays, officials said.

Horses that are not legally “wild” could be “subject to impoundment,” the Forest Service said in a statement. In 2005, the agency tried to round up 120 horses but activists initiated action in court. A 2007 settlement called for a management plan with public input for the Heber territory.

Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva has been an advocate for preserving the horses. He said they should be considered a public asset and he plans to monitor management plans.

It’s unclear the affect so many horses have on the land. But many residents think there is no harm in loosening the reins when there appears to be more than enough open space.

“It’s like taking a drop of water out of a 5-gallon bucket,” said Robert Hutchison, who has lived in nearby Overgaard for nearly 25 years.

Donna Doss, who lives in Overgaard and runs an outdoors shop, said she remembers seeing horses in Heber and the surrounding area when she went on hunting trips as a kid.

“That’s an animal that’s part of Arizona history,” said Doss, 70. “I go out once a week to see them and the beauty of the freedom of them.”


Information from: The Arizona Republic, https://www.azcentral.com

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