Three animal protection groups have joined forces to stop the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest from auctioning 400 "wild" horses, fearing the animals will be purchased for slaughter.
But forest officials call them "trespass" horses, and therein lies the dispute.
"A lot of folks are trying to paint them as wild horses because there are different laws that apply when they are wild horses," Eileen Zieroth, forest supervisor, said. "We don't consider them wild horses; they're stray horses."
The law that applies to the horses is the Wild Horse and Burro Act, passed in 1971, designating the Heber Territory as a protected wild horse and burro sanctuary. Joe Wager, editor of the statewide horse magazine "Bridle and Bit" is working with the three groups -- In Defense of Animals (IDA), The Animal Welfare Institute and the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Wild Burros.
"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," Wager said. "It's composed of 14,000 acres."
The horse population increased in the sanctuary 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," Zieroth said. "So when the fences were down a lot of those animals got through that area and onto the national forest."
Forest officials claim the vast majority of the 400 horses came from tribal lands.
"All of our records indicate that the last time anyone saw any horses in (the Heber Territory) that were part of (the original group of wild horses) was about 12 years ago, and there were two mares left," Zieroth said. "Now we have hundreds of horses, and obviously those two mares didn't produce hundreds of horses."
But Wager 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 forest has a definite motive in having the horses designated as strays.
"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."
The forest was hoping to select a contractor to capture the horses by the end of September and hold the auction by the end of October. But last Friday a federal district court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the forest, pending a hearing scheduled for Sept. 23.
"That will keep us from both awarding the contract and proceeding with any gathering activities until we've had time to sit down and negotiate how to work through this," Deb Bumpus, forest ecosystems staff officer, said.
Forest officials said the tribe initially indicated it wasn't interested in getting the horses back, but recently changed its position and agreed to help identify those that belong to the tribe.
"The Forest Service and this forest in particular has absolutely no interest in disposing of horses that would qualify under the wild horse and burro act, but the branded ones definitely belong to somebody and we want to find their owners," Bumpus said.
If some or all of the horses end up being sold, the best way to keep them from being slaughtered is for horse lovers to purchase them and give them good homes, Zieroth said.
"There's always the potential that if they are sold at a public auction they could be bought for slaughter, but if groups are real concerned they can come and buy the horses," Zieroth said. "We have to recoup our costs. We can't give away horses. We can't put them up for adoption."
However it plays out, Zieroth is certain of one thing -- the horses can't stay in the forest.
"One of the reasons the national forests were formed 100 years ago is that people were pretty much turning animals onto them to graze and there was a lot of overgrazing," she said. "We're trying to reclaim the area after the fire, and we just don't have room there for stray animals."
But if the judge rules the way Wager thinks he will, the forest will just have to make room for the horses.
"There is no way in the world the judge can find in favor of the Forest Service in the face of the quality of the affidavits, the quality of the people rendering the affidavits, and sheer logic, frankly," he said. "So what he's going to do is refer the Forest Service to the act and say you are going to have to manage these horses as per the act."
While Zieroth appreciates the zeal of the protection groups, she has a forest to run.
"Horses are a nice image and it's kind of a no-win," she said. "But we're not a sanctuary for all the stray horses, because they reproduce."
The coalition of animal protection groups is raising money to purchase the horses and to continue the legal battle. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to In Defense of Animals, 2121 S. Mill Ave., Suite 107C, Tempe, AZ 85282. For more information, call (480) 394-0578.