ALPINE — The U.S. Forest Service will start removing about 400 feral horses near Alpine to protect the land and endangered species in the area. The horses are about four-and-a-half hours east of Phoenix in the White Mountains near the New Mexico border.
A spokesperson for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Service says they are causing "substantial problems for not only native plants and animals, which are being outcompeted for resources, but they also destroy watersheds and negatively impact ecosystems."
Dr. Robin Silver is with the Center of Biological Diversity and said the horses arrived in the area after the Wallow fire in 2011. He said damage to the land is causing the extinction of two endangered species: the Apache trout and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.
"At this point, we're really losing what little vegetation is left in the area, almost and arguably to the point of no recovery," he said. "If we want to have any healthy upper elevation meadows and streams left in the White Mountains, we have no choice. Those horses have to be removed."
The Forest Service said they'll use passive baiting and trapping to remove the horses, starting with 20 of them.
But horse advocates are trying to prevent that.
Simone Netherlands from the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group spent a few days over the weekend tracking and documenting the horses in Alpine.
"These are beautiful historic wild horses," she said. "We don't think it's fair to scapegoat the last of Arizona's previous wild horses."
Netherlands said her group is working with the Forest Service to see if there's another way to control the horse population. She wants to do what her group has done with the Salt River horses: use fertility control.
"It only takes one dart in the butt for that mare to not have a foal the next year," said Netherlands. "We'll facilitate the removal of some, while at the same time keeping a sustainable, viable population there that's controlled through birth control and therefore they won't grow out of the boundaries of their habitat."
A spokesperson for the Forest Service Wednesday sent ABC15 a statement that said fertility control was not a feasible option, saying that method of using darts as birth control "is a federally regulated pesticide that is only approved for federally protected wild horses and burros. These horses are not wild horses or federally protected under the Wile Horses and Burros Act of 1971."
Once removed, the horses will be sold in person and online.
Netherlands worries many of them will be killed.
"That means if they do get bought by kill buyers, they'll be stuffed in a truck, driven across the border, and horrifically slaughtered in Mexico," said Netherlands.
Silver called the removal of the horses a horrible situation but said something has to be done.
"Let me make sure it's very clear. We're an anti-extinction organization. We're not anti-horse," he said.
According to the Forest Service, they will alert the public when the horses go on sale, saying anyone who's interested in buying a horse can contact them.
They ask that people with questions or comments call 928-235-5764 or email SM.FS.ASNF_PAO@usda.gov.
Read more on the Forest Service's announcement here.