A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction last week banning the capture and removal of "wild" horses from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
"This is a very positive outcome," Dr. Pat Haight, of In Defense of Animals (IDA), said. "The injunction remains in place until our case is fully and finally resolved via summary judgment or trial."
At stake is the fate of about 400 horses that forest officials consider "trespass" or "stray" horses rather than "wild." It's an important distinction because "wild" horses are protected under the Wild Horse and Burro Act. Passed in 1971, it designates the Heber Territory as a protected wild horse and burro sanctuary.
Forest officials say many, if not all of the horses in question escaped from a nearby Indian reservation following the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002.
"The fences between the national forest and the White Mountain Apache tribal lands burned up in the fire and there are a lot of horses that run loose on the tribal lands," Eileen Zieroth, forest supervisor, said. "So when the fences were down a lot of those animals got through that area and onto the national forest."
The IDA and other animal rights groups, including The Animal Welfare Institute and the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Wild Burros, disagree. They have taken up the horses' cause because they fear the animals will be purchased at auction for slaughter.
In issuing the preliminary injunction, Federal Judge Frederick Martone agreed with Joe Wager, editor of the statewide horse magazine "Bridle and Bit," who disputes Zieroth's claim.
"The forest alleges that all the wild horses died, but everybody knows that's just a lie," he said. "Before the fire the fence was nothing, it was down everywhere, and the horses just ran back and forth.
"Some of those horses go back to 1650 when Father Keno left them, and the herd has just perpetuated itself."
Wager said the U.S. attorney representing the forest presented nothing of substance to Martone that would prove the horses were anything but wild.
"He provided no evidence, no backup on the fact that these weren't wild, free-roaming horses," he said. "He didn't have one piece of paper, one affidavit, one anything, so there's a pretty good chance it will go to summary judgment."
Zieroth said the Forest Service will abide by the injunction imposed by the court.
"We will see if we can mediate some kind of a settlement on it," she said. "We haven't done anything with the horses; they're still out there."
In the meantime, Zieroth said the Forest Service is working with the tribe to get the fence fixed so the problem will not reappear sometime in the future.
"There are a lot of dead trees from the Rodeo-Chediski Fire falling on it," she said.
Wager is familiar with the area.
"The wild horse sanctuary runs along Highway 260 from Forest Lakes to Heber, then it runs south out of Heber, winds around Black Canyon Lake, and runs over to the Gentry Watchtower," he said.
The Forest Service has a definite motive in having the horses designated as strays, Wager believes.
"They have to come up with a new forest plan in 2006 and they'd rather not include those horses in their management plan," he said. "They thought they'd just snooker it through."
Forest Service officials were hoping to select a contractor to capture the horses by the end of last September and hold the auction by the end of October. Instead, the matter has become mired in the courts.
"We had two temporary restraining orders, and now we have an injunction that they can't do anything until after the trial," Wager said.
Even more encouraging to the groups fighting to save the horses is the fact that the judge's ruling actually extends beyond the boundaries of the sanctuary.
"The area in question where these horses initially were comprises 145 to 150,000 acres," Wager said. "What this injunction does is preclude them from touching any horses anywhere in the two million acre forest."
Wager believes the legal restrictions are the only way to save the horses.
"I'm sure the (forest officials) are all pretty nice people, but pretty soon you start dancing to your own drummer and I think that's what they do," he said. "They listen to themselves."
Zieroth says it will all play out in the courts, and that she has nothing against horses.
"Horses are a nice image, but it's kind of a no-win," she said. "We're not a sanctuary for all the stray horses, because they reproduce."
The coalition of animal protection groups is raising money to continue the legal battle. Tax-deductible donations marked "for Apache-Sitgreaves horses" should be sent to In Defense of Animals, 131 Camino Alto, Suite E, Mill Valley, CA 94941. For more information, call Haight at (480) 394-0578.