The Navajo Nation has a wild horse problem

The population is exploding, but the tribe doesn’t have funding to manage it.

 

Up to 40,000 wild horses wander the Navajo Nation, roaming across 27,000 miles of deep canyons, rugged hills and huge mountains, according to aerial estimates from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In just five years, the population is expected to double. Already the feral horses compete with domestic animals, sheep or cattle, and wildlife for water and sparse vegetation. Yet a Navajo Nation oversight committee recently denied an $800,000 funding request from the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department to help reduce the horse population, leaving the nation with few alternatives.

“Right now, there is no program,” Leo Watchman, Navajo Nation Agriculture Department director, told me recently. The department denied the request, in part, because the nation’s other priorities, including health care and education, take precedent. “You need to put dollars forward to gain management,” Watchman said, “but the issue will come up again.”

Navajo horse breakers tame a mustang at La Tinaja in Ramah, New Mexico.

Feral horses have become a problem not only among the Navajo but also among other tribal officials managing reservation lands throughout the West. The Colville and Yakama tribes in Washington, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon and the Shoshone-Bannock in Idaho have all been plagued by out-of-control horse populations. The problem presents a unique quandary for tribes: What do you do with a creature that has been an integral part of your culture, but has wreaked havoc on land, water, traditional foods and wildlife?

The Navajo Nation has long grappled with how best to control feral and domestic horses abandoned by owners unable to care for them. In 2013, then-Navajo President Ben Shelly publicly supported a horse slaughter operation in Roswell, New Mexico. Shelly approved $1.4 million to allow Chapter Houses, a form of local government on the Navajo Nation, to inspect and process the horses for selling. Horses obtained in tribal roundups since around 2011 have either been sold to buyers for resale, adoption or slaughter in processing plants in Canada or Mexico, which export the meat to consumer markets in Europe and Asia.

Because tribes are sovereign nations, their management differs from the way the U.S. government manages feral horse populations. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the 70,000 wild horses and burros on public lands in the West, promotes adoption. According to the agency, each animal that goes unadopted can cost nearly $50,000 in care. The U.S. government has prohibited sending feral horses to slaughter since 1971, with the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming and Burros Act. The act, however, allows the BLM to euthanize sick or dangerous horses.

More than 38,000 wild horses live on the Navajo Nation.

Tribal officials say the feral horse population burgeoned when the last U.S. horse slaughterhouses closed in 2007. U.S. Court of Appeals in the Fifth and Seventh Circuits upheld state laws in Texas and Illinois prohibiting sale or possession of horsemeat and horse slaughter. Congress also pulled funding for meat processing prohibiting new plants from opening and wild horses became devalued. Simultaneously, the U.S. began hitting an economic downturn, hay prices were at an all-time high and many, unable to care for them, let their horses go.

In March, Gloria Tom, Navajo Fish and Wildlife Department director, broached the idea of a horse hunt, telling The Navajo Times “previous attempts to trap, round up, or allow horses to be adopted had not made a large enough impact.” But that proposal was quashed after an outcry from horse enthusiasts and advocacy organizations, who met with the tribal Wildlife Department in May to promote a more humane way of managing herds. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and other groups argued for the use of darts containing a contraceptive called porcine zona pellucida, or PZP. Citing 30 years of research and studies done on urban deer populations, the group says that the feral horses become infertile when PZP is injected yearly for five years.

Recently, on an early September afternoon I met with Leland Grass of Diné for Wild Horses. Near the Navajo National Monument, about half-hour from Kayenta, Arizona, his home is abutted by a corral that contains two horses from the wild. Grass, part of the strong vocal opposition to the horse roundup and slaughter-sale in 2013, supports more local control and management of feral bands through Chapter Houses, where officials could maintain bands and move stallions before mating. He also works to educate the Diné, or Navajo people, whom have long included horses as part of their creation stories. “Our people don’t like roundups because that’s not our way,” Grass said. “If you destroy something that’s living, it’s going to grow back again and come back stronger.”

Leland Grass of Diné for Wild Horses stands by his corral near his home a few miles from the Navajo National Monument. Grass advocates for more education and local Chapter House management for feral horses.
Kim Baca

Some Chapter Houses have held local roundups, borrowing temporary pens and other equipment from the Navajo Agriculture Department to trap horses or unclaimed livestock. They catch the animals at area watering holes and  call the department to have them removed. The Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, or Burnham Chapter, in Northwest New Mexico is one local government taking charge by working with the BIA on a fencing project to keep livestock and feral horses from roaming free.

Whatever the solution — roundup, birth control, horse hunt or adoption — it will cost money. The issue, Watchman said, will be discussed again during a natural resources conference on the reservation in November.

Kim Baca is a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She’s covered  agriculture, environmental, educational and Native American issues for more than two decades.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • PRICE REDUCED $94,300 - LOT SOUTH OF MONTROSE
    5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • CHARMING HOME/FARM NEAR CLIFF, NM
    3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF NEW MEXICO WILDLIFE FEDERATION
    The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE SPECIALIST I
    HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • ARAVAIPA LAND STEWARD
    The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • VP OF DEVELOPMENT
    seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT
    High Country News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • FIVE-ACRE VIEW LOT WITH WELL
    5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.