Advocates for Arizona Wild Horses Slated to be Rounded Up See Hope in DNA Results

Positive determination could ‘alter argument’ with government, says genetics expert

Alpine wild horse advocates in Arizona are awaiting lab results to determine whether the free-roaming horses being rounded up on U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service land and sold online are of a historical Alpine lineage.

While a positive determination of Alpine heredity may not halt the Forest Service’s scheduled roundups, it may “alter the conversation,” said Gus Cothran, a retired emeritus professor, and consultant with the Animal Genetics Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

“It then becomes a more substantial public relations [matter]” for the Forest Service, “and potentially of scientific interest,” Cothran said.

“It would change the argument unless the powers-that-be don’t want it to change.”

Epoch Times Photo
Wild horse advocate Dyan Albers Lowey stands next to one of at least 15 Alpine wild horses found shot and killed in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests on Oct. 17, 2022. Volunteers say they have discovered the remains of 43 horses in total, while 11 more remain missing. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group in Prescott, Arizona, asked the lab to do DNA analysis on several horses found shot and killed in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in early October.

The group said the horse death toll now stands at 43, will 11 more still missing, based on reports from Alpine Wild Horse Advocates volunteers.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture investigation remains ongoing but has identified no suspects.

The Forest Service has designated the Apache horses as “unauthorized livestock.” As such, they do not receive protection under the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act and are subject to legal systematic roundup and removal.

However, Salt River group president Simone Netherlands believes the Forest Service ruled the horses are feral livestock without sufficient evidence and considers the roundups “inhumane.”

“Without even looking into any of that, they should be the ones doing DNA research,” Netherlands told The Epoch Times.

“They should be the ones looking into the historical articles,” referencing government efforts to eradicate the horses, at 5.5 cents per pound, since 1926.

Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble wrote that he believes the horses are genuine Alpines, and there is “sufficient historic[al] evidence” to prove that.

On Dec. 16, the Forest Service listed approximately 30 more horses rounded up for sale at online public auctions through contractor Rail Lazy H in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Epoch Times Photo
Simone Netherlands inspects the recently arrived Alpine wild horses at the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group sanctuary on Nov. 30, 2022. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Wild horse advocates fear the horses will end up in slaughterhouses in Mexico and their meat sold on the international market.

More than 160 have already been removed and sold. Advocates estimate fewer than 200 of the original 400 horses in the Apache herd remain.

A group that calls itself the Army for Alpine Wild Horses, an alliance of wildlife sanctuaries and horse advocates, recently bought more than 100 horses for placement in suitable homes.

However, Netherlands said it’s getting harder to find homes for the horses, placing pressure on advocates to pursue other measures, including state legislation to protect the remaining herd.

Volunteers obtained tissue samples from several dead Apache horses for genetic testing which will determine whether they are of domestic or wild lineage.

Cothran, a landmark researcher of horse genomics at Texas A&M, said that DNA testing is a “fairly simple process” to create standard genetic profiles of individuals or entire populations.

While the small lab received about 12 tissue samples, all but five were “too degraded” to be useful in testing.

“We could probably get DNA from a few of these if we take the time,” Cothran told The Epoch Times. “It is a laborious process, and we don’t have the manpower.”

The lab will use the PCR method to extract horse DNA and then run the material through an electric field in a process called electrophoresis.

Next, lab technicians will inject the DNA with a fluorescent dye, after which it will pass through a laser beam detector, and the information fed into a computer for analysis.

Wild horses
Wild horses roam throughout the Carson Valley. (Courtesy of Dennix Lennox)

Cothran said the entire process can detect even minute variations in a horse’s genetic makeup, and that the results are “very accurate.”

“It’s pretty much automated, except for some basic DNA handling,” he said. “The more information we have, the better. You get more information from 10 individual [horses] than from one horse. So there’s more variation.”

The lab will compare each horse’s genetic profile against different breeds to determine ancestry.

“We do have quite a large comparative database. I can test the herds against 150 domestic breeds. We have data on over 200 feral populations, mostly from the western United States,” Cothran said.

The analysis will look at different levels of genetic variation within the Apache horse population, considering its size and the demographic processes that influenced the population over generations.

“If these horses are, in fact, old populations, isolated in the wild for generations, this will give us a lower level of variability [in the DNA results],” Cothran said.

If the animals prove recently cross-bred, “that would give us a different pattern of variation.”

To label the horses unauthorized feral livestock was “premature,” Cothran added.

Required By Law

“At this point, it is. We have collected the data, but we need to start the analyses. The question then becomes, ‘How long have they been free living? [within the Apache forest?].”

On Dec. 6, the Forest Service announced plans for a district-wide impound of unauthorized livestock within the Alpine, Clifton, and Springerville ranger districts of the Apache national forests, which spans nearly 3 million acres.

According to the Forest Service, such unauthorized livestock will include cattle and horses.

The notice states, “Any unbranded livestock, or any livestock bearing brands of previously unauthorized livestock which are found to be making continuing or subsequent unauthorized use within the 12 months after publication of this notice may be impounded without further notice.”

Livestock not sold at public auction may be sold at private sale, condemned, destroyed, or otherwise disposed of based on Forest Service regulations.

The Forest Service added that it is required by law to post public notice of actions taken in U.S. national forests.

“Gathering unauthorized livestock is a normal and needed part of land management. Occasionally, livestock wanders out of their permitted grazing area. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests have consistently worked with state and local partners to remove unauthorized livestock from the landscape, and return them to their owner if ownership can be determined,” the agency told The Epoch Times in an email.

The Forest Service said it has gathered 74 unauthorized cattle in 2021.

“Gathering operations for unauthorized horses will continue as allowed by weather and partner capacity under this same notice.”

Netherlands said the notice signifies intent by the Forest Service to broaden the roundup of horses until they are all gone.

“It’s beyond normal. They are making a mockery of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act by designating them unauthorized livestock,” Netherlands said. “There are roundup notices for cattle. Not for horses.”

Cothran said the DNA tests should put to rest any dispute over whether the Alpine horses originated as a free-living population in the last 50 years or less, “as opposed to whether they have been here maybe over 100 or 200 years.”

“That could make a difference,” he said.

Allan Stein

Allan Stein is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Arizona.

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