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Federal judge denies motion to protect wild horses from potential slaughter

The judge found federal records implicating horses in the area as descendants of domesticated horses, and not wild.

PHOENIX (CN) — A federal judge in Arizona has ruled that 18 horses seized by the U.S. Forest Service should not be re-introduced into the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests because they are considered unregulated livestock instead of protected wild horses.

According to the federal complaint filed in June, the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros believes horses have lived in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forests for decades and the 18 horses removed from the forest are wild, and free-roaming horses entitled to protection by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WHA).

The society was seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the defendant, the U.S. Forest Service, from selling those horses as livestock to non-government entities.

U.S. District Judge Steven Logan found Thursday the WHA strictly defines protected horses and that this group does not fall under its purview. 

“The WHA provides that wild horses ‘are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands,’” Logan wrote in his decision.

According to Logan, the 1971 act established, at that time, areas where the government must maintain and nurture wild horses. Horses that manifest outside of those areas should be considered unauthorized livestock. 

The U.S. Forest Service argued in a hearing on July 22 that these horses were not a part of that territory but were probably livestock bred in the area. 

Logan agreed with that assessment and cited a 2021 report prepared by Forest Service historians recounting an unruly family that had trouble wrangling their horses. 

“[E]ach sighting was attributable to horses that had escaped from either the nearby Fort Apache Indian Reservation or from one of several family allotments in the area,” he wrote. “One family in particular — the Wiltbank’s — 'endlessly struggled with reports of their stock... leaving the allotment… or simply winding up in the road.’”

Logan also found clear efforts by the Forest Service to go above and beyond its due diligence by gathering stakeholders to discuss the horses before their roundup. 

“Those in attendance included representatives of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, a representative of over 30 sportsman organizations, and representatives from allotments nearby the area at issue,” he wrote. “The notes from the meetings indicate that the stakeholders were supportive of the Forest Service’s efforts and plan to remove the horses. Aside from the December 2021 meetings, Defendants provide an extensive list of all organizations and individuals contacted by the Forest Service in relation to the ‘unauthorized livestock’ issue. Importantly, none of the interested parties who were contacted ‘voiced an objection to the determination that the horses on the Forest are unauthorized.’”

Last week, Troy Froderman of FR Law Group, representing the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, argued it was the only party to provide concrete historical evidence indicating the presence of horses in the area before the 1971 act.

Froderman showed the court a snippet of a newspaper, submitted as evidence, which describes a resident viewing “wild horses” in the region. 

“We’re the only ones who presented evidence of an eyewitness who said in 1918 he saw the wild horses,” Froderman said. 

Logan found that evidence to be lacking.

“In sum, this Court cannot credit this newspaper article as anything close to evidence substantially indicating the presence of horses… prior to 1971,” he wrote. “Aside from the newspaper article, plaintiff has provided nothing — in its briefing or at the hearing — in the way of affirmative evidence indicating that horses were present on the relevant allotments.”

Logan said determining the autonomy of those horses before 1971 may be nearly impossible, and therefore he must assume the Forest Service’s records to be accurate.

“Without more from Plaintiff, this Court must defer to the expertise of the Forest Service and assume that such is the case,” he wrote.

In last week's hearing, Froderman claimed the horses could be sold to organizations for slaughter. According to expert witness Ericka Luna, a deputy forest supervisor for Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, the Forest Service will do its best to prevent butchers from taking the animals. 

“We’re doing our best possible job to make sure that we are preventing animals from getting into the slaughter pipeline while also meeting our regulatory obligation for removal of unauthorized livestock,” she said.

Courthouse News reached out to the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros and its attorneys but did not receive comments by press time.

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