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What makes a horse wild? Advocates push back against ‘feral’ classification of historic equids

Roughly 500 horses inhabit an area along the Black River in eastern Arizona. Some say the herd descends from Spanish colonial horses. Others say the herd is more recent and doesn’t belong on the land it now grazes.

This is the first of three stories about free-roaming horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Read part two here.

ALPINE, Ariz. (CN) — Deep scars run through Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, a constant reminder of a devastating fire that burned more than 500,000 acres across the White Mountains around a decade ago.

That fire destroyed 19 miles of border fence, sparking a heated debate around the horses who now inhabit this forest. Experts remain torn on where these horses came from and whether they belong here.

Some experts say the fire and loss of fencing allowed horses to cross from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation into Apache-Sitgreaves. They say horses don't belong in this delicate ecosystem and would like to see them gone.

Others, including indigenous Apache who have long lived in the region, say the horses have been here for generations — long before that 2011 fire. The disagreement cuts to the core of Americans' unique relationship with this charismatic species, which first appeared in North America millions of years ago and later played a critical role in European colonization of the continent.

Hundreds of horses roam free near Alpine, Arizona, just six miles from the Arizona-New Mexico border and more than 8,000 feet above sea level. Locals and wild horse advocacy groups collectively refer to the horses, which roam nearly 75,000 acres of forest known as the Black River watershed, as the Alpine herd.

The U.S. Forest Service and most conservationists call them something else: feral.

Two horses cross a road deep in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

“They shouldn't be there,” said Robin Silver, founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered species. “These are exotic animals that did not evolve with our habitat.”

The existence of free-roaming horses in the American West has been a source of controversy since European settlers first arrived. While horses originally evolved in North America about five million years ago, most scientists agree they completely disappeared from the continent around the end of the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago.

Then, just around 500 years ago, colonizers and settlers from Europe reintroduced them to the continent. New research shows that horses spread quickly across North America in the decades after Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, but scientists disagree on exactly where they ended up.

North American ecosystems changed a lot in the last 10,000 years — and many conservationists see the return of horses as detrimental. They say horses disrupt delicate ecosystems and take resources away from competing fauna. They’ve urged the Forest Service to remove them from public land.

Other advocates are fighting back to preserve what they say are historically and culturally significant beasts. In his 2011 book “Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs,” J. Edward De Steiguer described free-roaming horses as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

Simone Netherlands, horse advocate and president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, agrees. Removing horses from public land is “ungrateful” behavior given their significant role in American history, she said.

“This was how the Wild West was won,” she said. “Literally on the backs of these horses.” 

Netherlands said she has DNA evidence linking the horses to those that carried the conquistadors into battle. Still, that wouldn’t prove them to be wild in the Forest Service’s eyes.

The United States considers any unbranded and unclaimed horses that roamed free on federal land before 1971 to be wild, a distinction made in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act that year. The law allows those horses and their descendants to remain on the land in perpetuity. Under the law, the U.S. Forest Service also must protect them from injury or harassment from humans.


Any herds that weren’t certified as wild in 1971, including herds established after the fact, are instead considered feral. Feral livestock lack protections under state or federal law, and the Forest Service says they can’t remain on the land.

So, what about the horses of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest? Are they feral or wild?

Feral, say groups like the Forest Service and the Center for Biological Diversity. Citing a 2021 assessment of internal Forest Service documents, both groups maintain that before the 1990s, there was no consistent presence of free-roaming horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves outside of Heber Wild Horse Territory, a small northern portion of the forest designated in 1971 as the only area with truly wild horses.

Male horses often leave their families to form "bachelor bands" and roam the forest looking for mates. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

“There’s very little evidence that they were there prior to the 90s,” Rob Lever, Apache-Sitgreaves Forest supervisor, said of the roughly 500-horse Alpine herd. He said the herd consists of escaped livestock from tribal and other ranches in the area.

Experts point to the 2011 Wallow Fire and subsequent loss of fencing as the catalyst that allowed horses to enter the forest. Among them are George Ruyle, a University of Arizona professor and rangeland ecology and management specialist, who argues the horses that now inhabit the Black River watershed came from tribal land.

The White Mountain Apache say there’s more to the story. Tribal officials and residents say they encountered wild horses in the area long before the Wallow Fire and even before the 1971 legal distinction between "wild" and "feral" specimens.

“Horses have always been here,” said Ramon Riley, cultural resource director for the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Riley agrees that horses entered federal land after the Wallow Fire but contends wild horses were already roaming free near the White Mountains.

“Wild horses were here before the '50s,” Riley said.

Other Apache residents offered similar impressions. Randy Antonio, a White Mountain Apache cattle rancher, said wild horses have roamed Apache-Sitgreaves since at least the 1800s. The horses that now live in Apache-Sitgreaves Forest could be descendants of Spanish Barb horses brought by Spanish conquistadors, he speculated.

If Antonio is right, it could help unravel the mystery of these horses and how they got to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in the first place. Still, that wouldn't necessarily grant them federal protections allowing them to stay in the forest.

Conservationists say horses eat and trample tall grasses imperative to the survival of endangered species. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

Besides, DNA evidence has cast doubt on this provenance. Gus Cothran, a retired horse geneticist at Texas A&M University, analyzed more than 10,000 horses from 200 free-roaming horse populations in the Southwest. Only 3 to 5% descend from colonial Spanish horses, his research found.

Cothran concedes that Arizona’s proportion could be slightly higher. He recently told the Salt River group that the Salt River herd has evidence of Spanish ancestry, pending a complete study. Even so, the Spanish horses were domesticated as well, intermixing with other North American breeds and further blurring the line between wild and feral horses.

“The Spanish Mustang breed was formed with horses that originated from feral or Native American stock from all over North America,” Cothran wrote in a 2006 journal article

Ruyle, the University of Arizona professor, agrees that escaped Spanish horses can't explain the Alpine herd.

“These horses don’t have any of that blood in them,” he said.

Others aren't so sure. Dyan Paquette, horse advocate and owner of Aspen Lodge in Alpine, said one of the horses she rescued closely resembles Spanish Barb horses and could be a descendant.

The notion that horses roamed freely throughout the forest prior to 1971 contradicts the Forest Service’s publicly stated claims, but it falls in line with how former employees have characterized the forest in the past. 

In his 1972 book "Men Who Matched the Mountains: The Forest Service in the Southwest," Edwin Tucker, a 32-year Forest Service veteran, relied on his recollections and interviews with rangers and other employees to document how the Forest Service took shape throughout the 20th century. Tucker mentions free-roaming horses as far back as the 1920s, describing conversations with rangers on how to get rid of the “pests.”

Around the same time, Tucker wrote, the Forest Service gathered nearly 800 undocumented horses along Campbell Creek, which runs about 10 miles south of Alpine, as well as 2,600 more horses in Greer, about 20 miles to the northwest.

While most — not all — of the horses had brands, nobody came to claim them, leading some to believe they never had owners.

The Alpine herd roams roughly 75,000 acres of land in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest known as the Black River watershed. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

Horse advocates point to that book and others as more evidence of wild horses in the area before 1971. De Steiguer wrote in “Wild Horses of the West” that wild herds established along the Arizona-New Mexico border as early as the 1600s.

In her 1989 book “Hashknife Cowboy” about the titular Hashknife Ranch in the nearby town Holbrook, Stella Hughes wrote about wild horses in the White Mountain area in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, a town history book, "Alpine Arizona: A Stroll Through History," mentions wild horses living near Alpine throughout the 20th century.

Proving that those horses have been in the Black River watershed since before 1971 may earn the Alpine herd federal protection from removal and harassment by humans. Still, without more concrete evidence, advocates have little power to influence the Forest Service’s treatment of what it considers feral livestock.

Some conservationists say the distinction doesn't really matter. They say horses are destroying an environment that evolved over their 10,000-year absence from the continent. And yet the bigger question, one of where the Alpine herd belongs or deserves to be, remains hotly contested.

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Categories / Environment, Regional, Science

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