Horse killings put spotlight on tensions between wild horse advocates, government, and ranchers
ALPINE, Ariz.—Dyan Albers Lowey has made every effort lately to spend quality time with her horses on her small family ranch in Alpine, Arizona.
She says it’s good to be around live things these days, especially after being around so much death.
For Lowey, the unsolved killing of 36 Alpine wild horses on U.S. Forest Service land near her property is the stuff of nightmares.
Now, she wants answers and charges against the perpetrator(s) for animal cruelty.
“I am so mad someone took it upon themselves to get rid of them,” Lowey said.
Lowey expressed her anger as a member of the Alpine Wild Horse Advocates (AWHA), a group of volunteers who are the field monitoring “eyes” for the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG) in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
Within this three million-acre natural preserve, whitetail deer and pronghorn, elk, and bighorn sheep roam the meadows and forests, along with herds of grazing cattle, which the U.S. Forest Service allows by permit.
On Oct. 3, AWHA volunteers discovered between 15 and 25 wild horses shot to death in the forest near the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Four horses with gunshot wounds were still alive.
Lowey said the Forest Service used a backhoe to bury some of the horses in mass graves.
“The bullet wounds I’ve seen look like somebody [with] experience hunting big game,” Lowey told The Epoch Times on a recent inspection of the kill sites.
Lowey frowned as she stood over the fly-ridden carcass of one stallion decomposing under a canopy of Ponderosa pine, with a large bullet entry wound on its left side.
The horse’s name was Crook.
Lowey believes Crook and all the other wild horses shot to death in the forest were victims of multiple shooters.
“To take down a whole family of horses standing together, you need multiple shooters. Because the minute a rifle goes off, they scatter,” she said.
“That leads me to believe there was a truckload of people.”
AWHA volunteers discovered two wild horses shot to death in April. They found that another horse had been killed in the same manner in September.
They didn’t see a connection at first. But all of that changed with the October discoveries.
And the killing spree was far from over.
This past week, volunteers found a dozen more Alpine wild horses shot to death, bringing the death toll to 36 amid cries of outrage among wild horse advocates.
“Nutrioso,” the lead stallion in the band, survived the massacre, according to an AWHA Facebook post.
“Nutrioso’s band found, all shot to death, except for poor Nutrioso, left all alone, grieving close by all of their slain and tortured bodies,” the message read.
Included was a $35,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the slaughter.
In the meantime, the Forest Service is working with local officials and law enforcement to “confirm the facts” of the reported killings.
The agency will share information “as it becomes available. We will have to decline to comment on ongoing investigations,” Jeffrey Todd, public affairs officer for the Forest Service’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, told The Epoch Times.
Bryan Swanty of the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office said his agency supports the Forest Service investigation and “assists as requested.”
Todd said the Forest Service is authorized to remove all “feral” livestock from the forest.
“The unauthorized livestock (horses) on the Alpine and Springerville Districts of the Apache National Forest are feral horses,” Todd said.
The Forest Service said the policy to remove the wild horses is “a necessary step to ensure that the Apache National Forest is healthy and sustainable for years to come.”
“These feral horses cause substantial problems for not only native plants and animals … but they also destroy watersheds and negatively impact ecosystems.”
According to the Forest Service, the wild horses pose an “imminent threat” to several federally-listed and threatened species, including the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.
On March 17, 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service, claiming that poor management to ensure the protection of the mouse violated the Endangered Species Act.
Using “passive traps,” the Forest Service rounded up over 80 wild horses and will sell them at online auctions through Dec. 15.
The last online sale took place Oct. 8-12 through Rail Lazy H.
Lowey said that some horses sold for as little as $50. She fears that many of them will end up in slaughter factories in Mexico to be sold as meat in Europe and Asia.
For this reason, she adopted “Hope,” an Alpine mare yearling, for $150.
Volunteer field monitors estimate the current size of the Alpine herd at around 400 horses.The animals do not receive protection under the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act because they are designated as “unregulated livestock.”
However, wild horse advocates like Lowey dispute the government’s use of the label. Based on historical articles, they consider the wild horses a domestic lineage dating back centuries.
Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble wrote there is “sufficient historic[al] evidence” to state the Alpine wild horses have been in the Apache Forest “since the time of the first explorers.”
A federal judge disagreed and, on July 29, ruled that 18 wild horses seized by the Forest Service should not be released back into the Apache Forest as unregulated livestock.
Alpine wild horse advocates say the government’s goal is to remove the Apache Forest herd altogether.
“The Forest Service is not protecting them; the hunters are shooting them. They are under attack from both sides,” said SRWHMG president and founder Simone Netherlands.
“They are being removed, and they are being killed. That’s why we need to protect them,” Netherlands told The Epoch Times.
“They shot babies. What kind of a monster do you have to be? We don’t think it’s one person.”
The shootings have only made tensions worse between wild horse advocates and local ranchers, who see the wild horses as outsiders competing for limited resources.
Local ranch manager Billy Wiltbank says that wild horse advocates have unfairly “demonized” small ranch owners on social media.
Still, he doesn’t believe a local rancher or group of them did the shootings, although “somebody got mad enough to [shoot wild horses].”
“They needed a scapegoat, and it’s the ranchers. To me, I know my friends didn’t do it. I know my family didn’t do it. Who would be so angry?” Wiltbank said. “I can’t stomach random killing. To be clear, I hope they catch who did it.”
Wiltbank said the present Alpine herd most likely grew from a small band that escaped the nearby White Mountains Apache Reservation years ago.
He said no known bands of wild horses roamed the Apache Forest before then.
“I grew up gathering our horses down there. I grew up gathering cattle there,” Wiltbank told The Epoch Times.
“It started in the late 90s, when we quit fixing fences because the pastures were taken away [by the Forest Service]. I watched it grow, moving gradually east to the lake. They just gradually kept growing, gradually kept moving.”
He said that “just because they’re there, doesn’t mean they belong there.”
More to the point, it makes no sense for ranchers to kill the wild horses when the government’s plan is to remove them anyway, Wiltbank said.
“Does it look bad? Yeah. It’s a horrible, ugly thing, but they’re not going to go all NCIS on it. These horses have no protection.”
Most local ranchers agree that rounding up the Alpine horses and removing them is a humane solution. But wild horse advocates “want them here—period,” Wiltbank said.
Scott Beckstead, an equine welfare specialist, and director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, said the Alpine horse shootings are the latest example of wanton cruelty against wildlife.
He said at least 40 Heber wild horses had been shot and killed in western states since 2018.
“I don’t know whether or not there’s a seasonality to those shootings. We do know that it is elk season. Now and then, we hear about horses shot during hunting season, and the speculation is they are mistaken for deer by hunters,” Beckstead said.
“That’s not what happened to these Alpine horses.”
Beckstead said the Apache Forest slaughter was a “carefully planned, premeditated, carefully executed hunt for these wild horses.”
The Arizona State Veterinarian and the Arizona Department of Agriculture are conducting necropsies on the dead horses in hopes of identifying suspects.
Beckstead said the wild horse shootings coincide with the killing of wolves in Washington and Oregon.
“We’re seeing the killings of two species hated by ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands,” he told The Epoch Times.
“I’m not going to say it’s a particular rancher or even that it is a rancher doing this. But it is someone who resents these species for the competition that they pose for livestock or the threat of predation in the case of wolves to livestock.”
Follow the Money
In Nevada, authorities are investigating the shooting deaths of a least five wild horses on federal land in September 2021. The Bureau of Land Management has offered a $10,000 reward for information on the shootings leading to an arrest and conviction.
“BLM law enforcement has received additional phone calls and is following up on all leads,” said Chris Hanefeld, a spokesman for the BLM’s Ely office.
“As to the person or persons responsible, I would not hazard a guess. I’m not aware of any issues [regarding] wild horses within our local ranching community. This particular incident does not appear connected with past shootings elsewhere in the western states,” Hanefeld told The Epoch Times.
Despite substantial rewards, no one has come forward with information in the Apache Forest case.
Lowey said the issue boils down to the fact that Alpine wild horses aren’t a significant source of revenue.
“They don’t bring the Forest Service money in grazing allotments. They don’t do anything but compete with other wildlife [cattle] for grazing, which does bring in revenue to the state.”
Lowey said wild horse advocates had proposed using birth control with the Alpine herd as a remedy for population growth, but federal authorities weren’t interested. The alternative is to change the law to guarantee federal protection for the horses.
“We built this country on the backs of horses. We built a civilization on the backs of horses. We owe them more than calling them a feral species and eradicating them,” Lowey said.
Allan Stein is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Arizona.