One Woman’s Quest to Stop Killings of Wild Horses in Arizona

WInter had frozen in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forrests by January 2019, when Betty Nixon observed the dead stallion. Locals called him Raven.

A bullet had broken his right leg bone, while Sparrow, a pregnant mare in red, was nearby. Sparrow had also been shot in the neck, belly, and abdomen. Nearby, behind a stand of junipers, the mare’s filly stood alone, lost.

Nixon came closer and the filly ran past Raven’s dead body.

Nixon documented the shooting of approximately 40 wild horses in the northeastern Arizona forest where hundreds of Hebers roam. Nixon began the project three years ago. She sets off on long, often mile-long walks to record the horses that she encounters as well as those she misses. Three dead wild horses were discovered in December. Unfortunately, no clues have been found by necropsies so far.

“I just don’t understand who would shoot a horse and leave it there,” says Jeffrey Todd, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. “It’s strange.”

Following the December shootings, the Forest Service declared a $10,000 reward for any information that leads to an arrest. Wild horses are federally protected and can be killed on public land. The penalty for killing one is a year in prison and $2,000 under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1972.

It has been difficult for the law to be enforced in 51 years. Most killings or abuse of the animals occur in remote areas, far from public view, and survivors can’t describe their assailants. Some people may be reluctant to hand over a gun as climate change and population growth increase tensions and the West’s success at replenishing wild horses raise the stakes for humans and the animals that share the land.

Although they do occur, most of them don’t result in long sentences.

For shooting wild horses using an AR-15 rifle, two Nevadan men were sentenced in 2010 to 6 months federal prison and 1 year supervision. Two men from Utah were sentenced in 2005 to six months imprisonment for shooting nine horses. They also received five months house arrest and a $2,005 restitution. A second Nevada case saw two men sentenced to 60-days in prison and $2,000 in fines. They were accused of shooting one horse out of 33 that had been killed four years before in the same region.

Discussion about wild horses

Arizona forest officials, ranchers, hunters and horse advocates have struggled for many years to manage the Heber herd. Todd says it could be as high as 500. Someone may now have the courage to take it on themselves.

The free-roaming horse’s advocates claim they are an integral part of the ecosystem. They break the ice at water sources, which allows them and other animals to drink, as well as helping cut down the brush and grass. Other people believe the horses invade the environment and serve as a symbolic of West’s freedom.

“There’s only so much food in the forest,” says John Koleszar, a hunter and former president of the Arizona Deer Association and Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation. Koleszar compares it to having a party for 8 people, and then having 100 guests show up. But Koleszar describes the killings as “appalling.” “We don’t in any way, shape, or form approve of that activity.”

In a place that is loved by everyone, the debate pitted neighbors against neighbours.

“Whether you’re for the horses or against them,” Nixon says, “these are horrific crimes, and they need to stop.”

The sun setsOn a February morning, you can see a silver light across the sleepy Ponderosa trees as you walk near the forest. This is where the Heber herd officially has its territory. Many of the trees have become charred from the Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002, which was the worst state fire in history. Nixon grew up in Arizona but became familiar with the wilderness area after she’d moved to Kansas and would drive to Apache Junction, Ariz., southwest of the forest, to visit her mother. Nixon (66), who moved from Kansas City to enjoy the quiet of those tall trees and the beauty of wildlife drew her here as she retired in 2018. It didn’t take long for her to discover the wild horses, which would appear silently and suddenly as she hiked in the woods.

“This is my sanctuary,” says Nixon, who as a kid would gallop around on the playground, pretending to be a horse or on a horse. “I’ve been horse-crazy all my life. I love horses and just watching them.”

After two horses died in a gunfight, another two were murdered. In January 2019, Nixon witnessed the death of Raven and Raven in person for the first-time. According to Nixon’s records, 14 horses were killed in the forest in 2019, 15 in 2020, and seven in 2021.

Nixon knew she had to do something when she first saw Sparrow and Raven.

“It’s vicious cruelty. It’s somebody that hates these horses with a vengeance,” she says, noting that several horses were shot in the face. “Shooting something in the face is personal,” Nixon says. “The shooter wants these horses to suffer.”

Nixon compares what she’s doing now to her years as an insurance claims investigator, studying motorcycle, snowmobile, car, and ATV accidents, and examining scenes in which faces were burned off or bodies were hit by trains. Later she became an expert in medical fraud rings. She worked alongside law enforcement officers to uncover organized crimes. She was trained in social media analysis, background checks, evidence collection and evidence search.

Nixon had been an Army intelligence officer stationed in West Berlin between 1982 and 1985. He was trained to intercept telephone and radio communications.

“These skill sets are ingrained in me, in my DNA,” she says of her knack for investigative work.

Conflict with the wildlifeIt isn’t new. Black bears, white sharks, wild horses, gray wolves, and other species nationwide are bumping up against human concerns that they’re becoming intrusive and endangering humans and livestock. These clashes have repercussions beyond Arizona’s forests. What does it really mean to an animal for them to be free? And can law protect their freedom?

Karrigan Bork is an Acting Professor of Law at the University of California. She has written extensively on law and wildlife. This has led to a rise in the view, toward some wild animals, of “how inconvenient they can be” to humans sharing the battered land, Bork says. “It’s creating more conflict; there are so many species we have to think about.”

However, no one knows why the Arizona attacks took place. Past attacks on wild horses or burros were blamed on trigger-happy passersby and hunters using the carcasses of slain horses in order to lure bears.

Koleszar says the killer is “misguided” or a “psychotic wacko.” Nixon suspects the shootings are tied to the bigger debate over land use. She, and many locals, have been critical of the Forest Service law enforcement’s response, questioning why the horse shootings continue after more than three years.

“I do sympathize with their frustration,” says James Alford, the special agent in charge of the Forest Service’s southwestern region, but Alford says the challenges to fighting crime in a wilderness area covering more than 2 million acres might not be apparent to critics. “Sometimes the public thinks that all police work is an episode of CSIA series of episodes FBI,” he says. “We know that that’s not reality.”

There are not many people who travel here.

“Horses are shot in very remote areas with no witnesses. These horses can be undiscovered for many days, or even weeks. The horses could have walked miles from where they were initially shot,” Alford says. “By the time we find the horses, sometimes they are in an advanced state of decomposition, or their carcasses could be scattered by predators or scavengers.”

Alford said that officers from law enforcement are in the area, following up on leads and tips.

“There are members of the public and people within the communities—they know the persons responsible for committing these crimes—and with their help and with our thorough investigations, we’re going to be able to solve these cases,” he says.

It wasn’t the retirement she expected

Nixon doesn’t know that her retirement passion of following wild horse families and bands has turned into a tedious task. She shares information with police to help crack the case. About 40-50 hours per week she drives and hikes the southern-central forest where there have been killings. She can hike up to five-to seven miles on steep, winding trails. All of the records she has on any horse or its band are kept in her photo and video collection.

Nixon is aware that danger lurks in the woods despite her seeming calm. Nixon carries bear spray and two guns. She parks her truck so she can quickly escape. She also carries a shovel, bungee cables, an axe and fire extinguisher. Winter temperatures drop as low as 20°C so she layers up, adds gloves, ear-covering headphones, and a headband.

Even though she knows what’s out there, each discovery, each new reminder of what’s happening in the wild, is jarring.

Nixon stops abruptly while she was out for a walk on a calm, cold morning. She looks down and points to the hip and pelvis bones of a stallion known as Big Daddy, all that’s left of the horse shot in the face in January 2019. One mare that was once dead lay beside him. Angel, a second mare, was not far behind. Angel was later put to sleep by forest officials.

In the air hangs the sinister scene. After a while, the sun shines through the thick pines. From her truck, Nixon spots two young male horses—bachelors she calls Fan and Draco—one a shiny blood bay and the other a buckskin, each with a black mane and tail. They sway their tails and bask in sunlight.

Nixon knows she’s always on the brink of heartbreak out here. She gets anxious when she sees ravens and a baldeagle or in warmer months, buzzards. To calm her down, she uses the following mantra: One bird does not a dead horse make. One bird does not a dead horse make.Her senses then take control. “You can hear the birds eating the carcasses. You can hear the coyotes,” Nixon says.

She approaches and the birds take off. It is common to see the same scene. Nixon longs to be there. Nixon wants to find out who and what was done. She repeats another mantra in her head: Lord, if there’s something for me to see, let me see it. If there’s something to hear, let me hear it.

Nixon was driving through the forest with a friend on Jan. 7, 2021 when they noticed birds flying overhead. “We knew something was dead,” Nixon says. They found the corpse of a bloodbay mare at the side of the road when they arrived at the spot. They knew her—she was part of a band led by a black stallion known as Midnight. She had suffered a severe injury to her face from wildlife, and she was now in serious condition. Midnight and an unborn black mare were both also dead. The bay mare’s filly was crippled, her eyes blinking. A Forest Service official shot the filly a few hours later to put an end to her pain.

The blood bay mare will soon be just a skeleton. Her skull will show the exact spot where she was shot in the head.

Nixon’s work doesn’t end with the deaths. Next comes the hunt for survivors. “You’re just frantically looking for them. ‘Are they OK?’”

Nixon takes photographs of the dead horse and keeps track of all details. She calls law enforcement and shares what she’s found with them. Nixon takes down the vehicle license plate numbers she finds as she drives through the wooded roads. This could make them potential witnesses to crimes.

“I’m hoping to be a deterrent to somebody that would come out here and shoot horses—a presence out in the forest,” Nixon tells me as we walk among tall weeds and trees. “If there is a dead horse out here, I want to be the first to find it. And I want to find it quickly because if you don’t find it within the first day or two, the evidence will be consumed.”

Wild horses and America’s history

Conquistadores broughtWild horses were originally called mustangs in Spain, and they arrived here in the 1500s. Today’s wild horses in Arizona may be descendants of the Spanish mustangs, but many have bred with ranch and farm horses.

The 1971 law to protect them and other wild-horse herds and burros grew out of a movement started by Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Bronn Johnston, a Nevadan who in the early 1950s became outraged at the rounding up and slaughter of horses for dog food and fertilizer. The horses’ numbers were decreasing, so she started a grassroots organization to help them. Wild Horse Country: Myths, History, and Future of the MustangDavid Philipps

It created areas of herd management for wild horses and burros on West-owned lands. The Bureau of Land Management (US Forest Service) and Arizona’s Bureau of Land Management manage wild horses on over 30 million acres of public land in 10 US states. These include Arizona, California and Colorado as well as Montana, Idaho, Montana and Nevada. The BLM alone oversees about 86,000 wild horses—who can live into their 20s—and burros on public lands, more than triple the 27,000 the bureau says the land can sustain.

According to Forest officials, the Heber Herd was originally made up of six mares and a stallion. However, it has grown steadily over the years to number in the hundreds. Forest Service has a proposal to reduce the Herd to no more than 50 horses and no more then 104. They will use contraceptives to remove horses and have a draft management plan of 146 pages. The original deadline for the implementation of this management plan was set for the spring.

“We’re looking to create a thriving ecological balance,” says Tolani Francisco, the wild-horse and burro coordinator with the Forest Service’s southwestern regional office, located in Albuquerque, N.M. “The horse is not the only animal out there.”

But Francisco says the horses are paying the price for a “two-legged problem,” humans arguing over whose land-use rights take precedence. “The horses lose the most,” says Francisco, who has horses of her own and says the shootings make her “extremely angry.” “It makes all of us infuriatingly mad that someone would do this.”

As with the horses themselves the wild-horse shoots have divided the community. Most locals say they want the shootings to stop, but some people have cheered the horses’ deaths or accused defenders of the horses of falsely pointing fingers at cattle ranchers.

“Legend is the name I gave the shooter. I don’t drink and I’d go have a beer with the man/woman/alien that won’t back down to the feral horse crap,” one person wrote in a social media post. Many have wondered if horses should be protected under 1971’s law since domesticated animals can also roam forests.

The shootings could have a negative impact on business owners’ livelihoods. Even some locals say they’re scared of the forest now. In this tiny community, the topic has been politically divisive. These are just the words HorseshoeingInvoke everything possible, including Second Amendment rights and mythological symbolism for horses to drive people in their own corners.

The outcome can make the difference for ranchers between financial survival or insolvency.

Nelson Shirley purchases a permit to allow his cattle to graze on this land, but he claims that the horses have destroyed some areas. “The horses are scouring it down to the dirt,” says Shirley. “I can’t graze my cattle if I don’t have that piece of habitat intact … If I’m going to have a ranch 50 years from now, it’s got to support all the wildlife, if it’s going to be good for my cattle.”

According to the Forest Service, 104 horses are the maximum number of Heber territories that can be grazed in order for there to be enough food. Nixon, though, fears that number is “not genetically viable” for a healthy herd; they’ll start inbreeding, which leads to disease and abnormalities.

Weather conditions change.If the weather warms, as history shows, horse deaths may decrease for a time. Shootings usually occur in winter when there is a drop of about 3,000 people from 18,000 during the summer. This makes it more difficult for assailants to go unnoticed.

Alford, with support from the Navajo County sheriff’s office, says the investigation continues. Nixon has accused Nixon of slowing down at responding to crimes and collecting evidence. But Alford says that she and the Forest Service officials cannot help but cooperate until all shootings have been solved.

“Betty’s helping us patrol the area,” Alford says. “She’s giving us more eyes out there to identify problems.”

Nixon keeps her eye on the forest. Nixon is still astonished by the sight of horses on their hind legs, playing with other horses, or a group basking in the sunlight. Nixon is amazed at the resilience of a survivor left behind by a shooting. “All the survivors are my favorites to see,” she says. “I’m watching them grow up. They are all my children.

The list includes Little Orphan Annie, a palomino-foal filly who was nicknamed Little Orphan Annie and ran after Raven killed her mother and she was shot in 2019.

Little Orphan Annie was blessed with her first foal, a buckskin, last year. Nixon gave her the name Fawn.

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