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Horses in Arizona forest: wild or domestic strays?

By ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN
Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. - The future of several hundred horses roaming across portions of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest could hinge on their history and DNA.

And their fate also depends on whether a federal judge finds that officials have taken all the steps required to protect the animals.

U.S. District Judge Frederick Martone in Phoenix will decide at a hearing Sept. 23 whether to issue a preliminary injunction to keep the U.S. Forest Service from rounding up some 300 to 400 horses for slaughter.

Last week, Martone granted a temporary restraining order to keep the service from awarding a contract for rounding up the animals.

The Forest Service wants the horses taken to a auction house in Sun Valley, near Holbrook, where those unclaimed by owners would be sold to the highest bidders.

"Buyers there are typically meat buyers," said Debra Sirower, a Phoenix lawyer representing animal welfare groups and two individuals trying to block the roundup and auction. "The horses would be sold for dog food or to Europe for restaurant tables."

Those seeking to save the animals - including Sirower's clients - also could bid for them.

The government contends that most of the horses now on the forest strayed onto it during or after the Rodeo-Chediski forest fire in 2002. The fire, Arizona's largest-ever blaze, burned 469,000 acres, including miles of fencing separating the Apache-Sitgreaves and the White Mountain Apache Reservation.

"We had a lot of fences down and knew that we had a lot of animals crossing jurisdictions," said Apache Sitgreaves spokesman Bob Dyson.

Government officials contend that the horses are domestic, mostly branded animals, unauthorized to be roaming on the forest.

That's based primarily on how many horses there were in the forest historically versus how many are there now, said Richard Patrick, an assistant U.S. attorney who represents the forest's acting supervisor.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the White Mountain Apache tribe captured several hundred horses after the fire, Patrick said. But their roundup efforts also drove some horses onto the forest, and when the BIA rebuilt burned fences the horses effectively were locked in on the forest, he and Dyson added.

"The tribe did a good job in capturing a large number of animals after the fire that they wanted to keep away from their reseeding efforts," Dyson said.

"Unfortunately, the ones that weren't caught tended to move up on the national forest. Subsequently, they've been increasing in population after the fences have been put back."

Dyson said Forest Service staffers have noticed "a significant triple-digit increase in herd size" in the last four years. Officials also insist that the horses have damaged grasses reseeded to rehabilitate large burned sections of the forest.

Sirower represents three animal welfare organizations - the Animal Welfare Institute, In Defense of Animals and the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros - as well as two individuals who have sued to protect the horses.

"It's my clients' position that there are wild horses there that have been there for decades, and likely hundreds of years," Sirower said. "But my clients have to be given the opportunity to prove it."

They believe that some of the horses' bloodlines can be traced to Andalusian ancestry or to horses brought to North America by Spanish pioneers or dating from Father Eusebio Kino's arrival in what is now southern Arizona in the 1690s, she said.

The Forest Service wants to act now to ensure that money in its fiscal budget ending Sept. 30 that might be used toward costs of a roundup might be lost if not obligated before then, Patrick said.

"Brands on the horses would help identify them, and even for those unbranded, DNA testing might be a vehicle to establish whether they are wild or domestic," Patrick said.

Dyson said authorities believe the horses are not wild animals.

Sirower said her clients want a census done to determine which horses are wild and which are branded. "Based on our investigation to date most are unbranded," Sirower said.

She contended that that means they should fall under protection of the Wild Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

Dyson said a survey of wild horses on the forest taken in 1971 found seven animals that may have qualified under the act, all of them on a 14,000-acre area subsequently designated as the Wild Horse Territory, near Heber.

But all those horses are believed to have been dead for a number of years, and the last survey, conducted around 1993, found no wild horses on the Apache-Sitgreaves, he said.

 

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