HEBER, AZ — Who is shooting and killing federally protected wild horses in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest near the community of Heber-Overgaard?
It is the burning question that has so many wild horse advocates outraged and concerned about their own safety as well.
Several residents have reported hearing gunshots near their homes, or while they are out hiking or taking pictures on national forest land.
ABC15 has also heard from residents who have said they felt the bullets whizzing by them toward a herd of beautiful horses.
The area is popular for hunters and some do go out there for target practice with their guns, but residents say they do not believe these horse killings are just '"stray bullets" that have accidentally struck a federally protected herd.
"Absolutely not. These horses are being shot intentionally," said Betty Nixon, who discovered some of the dead horses while taking pictures on forest land. "It was just heartbreaking," she said.
U.S. Forest Service officials in the area have said very little about the killings. Their first response to ABC15 was that this was not their jurisdiction.
Now ABC15 is learning they are "investigating" the killings. Just recently, residents have notified ABC15, the U.S. Forest Service has finally been putting up public notices in the forest, reminding people that the horses are a federally protected species, and removing them or hurting them is punishable by law.
Advocates with the Heber Wild Horse Preservation Alliance say at least 18 horses have been found dead since October 2018. To date, about 11 of them appear to have been shot.
Residents say the U.S. Forest Service's attitude about these killings has been "lackadaisical" at best.
Concerned residents met with Congressman Tom O'Halleran and a representative from Congressman Raul Grijalva's office on Saturday, pleading for help and demanding action from federal government agencies.
"What is the point of declaring them federally protected if you're not even going to protect them? Why are forest service officials not protecting the wild horses they were mandated to protect?" questioned Robin Crawford, a wild horse advocate. "This is a state treasure. These horses are a state treasure," she added.
Residents are also demanding transparency from the U.S. Forest Service. ABC15 asked Congressman O'Halleran if he agreed that concerned residents deserve some answers.
"There is an apparent lack of transparency and cooperation, I think we are going to address those issues," said O'Halleran.
He added that while he understands aspects of investigations need to be kept private, the Forest Service should be able to provide some information to the public, and his office would look into that.
"I hope they'll understand how beloved these horses are, how magnificent they are, how they need to be preserved. They need to be saved," said Nixon.
Congressman O'Halleran said he understood residents' concerns and agreed more needs to be done to educate the public about the penalties of killing a federally protected animal.
Congressman Grijalva's spokesperson said they will be sending ABC15 a statement regarding this issue soon.