In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we have barren man-made mauve plateaus marking our open pit iron mines that rise above the glacier scraped topography. 191 in Morenci, Arizona traces its way through miles of the largest open pit mine in the States dwarfing the Michigan iron pits. This was my first time traveling north on 191 in Arizona. Tiers of multi-colored pastel dirt piled in god-size scars on both sides of the highway. Both terrible and beautiful. Can such scars ever be repaired, will the land remember them for eternity?
Further north on 191 we passed into the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Grassland hills undulated until they became foothills and then mountains. Just south of Rose Peak Kurt and I met a pair of mysterious horses on the side of the road. They were cautious yet curious. Unshod. I didn’t think the Heber herd of Wild Horses was in that area, the other herd besides the Salt River Wild Horses that were in Arizona.
They weren’t the Heber Horses.
I was about to learn some new things about the wild horses in the west.
We stopped outside of Heber and camped in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. I had run into the National Forest Office to ask about the two horses we saw on the road. I was told they were “unauthorized ferals” and the Forest Service was working on having them removed. I learned via social media and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group that the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is full of wild horses unrecognized by the USDA under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. There are unrecognized wild horse herds scattered across the west. Because of a lawsuit, an endangered mouse, drought pressures and cattle those very horses I saw were facing immediate roundup and auction. An auction that advocates said could (and they couldn’t be promised otherwise) lead to slaughter houses in Mexico and dinner plates in China. I’ll never know if my reaching out to the Friends of the Heber Horses about the safety of the two roamers on the road had anything to do with them and the Salt River Management Group discovering the Forest Service’s intentions, but it was interesting timing. At the time of this writing there will still be a roundup by bait-trapping but with these organizations involved it looks like the herds are heading towards contraceptive management for those staying and local auction for those culled (as opposed to possible slaughter).
PZP is effectively used in herd management and its been around for thirty years. Yet roundups are still going on. I’d like to imagine cowboys going out by horseback to remote areas, long days toiling to bring in wayward bands of rowdy horses. No, they use helicopters. There are heartbreaking videos of panicked horses breaking legs and necks trying to break free of pens. Foals are also left orphaned in the wild and worse. One website I visited described the roundup on Navajo lands where there was reported disregard to property rights and they didn’t discern between wild or domestically owned animals. It described in detail the spiritual significance of the horse to their people. Once rounded up they face government housing. Really. Or they could face the auction and head to Mexico. There are efforts to get an executive action to halt the transport of wild horses across our borders. Advocates believe, and I’m convinced, the best place for wild horses is in the wild. The best herd management is PZP rather than emotionally cruel damaging roundups.
I don’t want to hear the argument about the damage to the land when this same public land is being grazed by cattle, a private interest making money off using public land.
While in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Heber, Kurt and I had the opportunity to see the Heber herd. I found them to be slightly wilder and more cautious of people compared to the Salt River Wild Horses. One band flat out galloped away when they saw me. Others were more tolerant, they relaxed when I sat on a cold frozen log to observe them in their field. It was cold, but warm enough to melt off the blanket of snow that accumulated over night. There were horses in a spread of ages before me (in PZP managed Salt River the herd skews adult), including someone very new to this life standing quietly close to vigilant mom.
After Heber we took a pass through the Petrified Forest National Park. I was there in early March fifteen years ago on a bitterly cold windy day, the kind that hurts uncovered ears. I can’t be sure the park was open. We were the only people there, in sight, clear to the treeless horizon. This visit I found people. People sprinkled everywhere. Some turn-offs with filled parking lots. Traffic. No room at the inn. I liked it better cold and empty.
Still a phenomenal land, with extraordinary ravens▪️
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