Protecting the range

Dodging hooves, threats and bad medicine, roundup workers persevere

By Alastair Lee Bitsóí
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, September 05, 2013

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H ollywood portrays wild horses as romantic icons, vestiges of a vanishing frontier.

The reality, says Derek Damon, is quite different.

Hired as a laborer under emergency funding administered by the Navajo Department of Agriculture for the ongoing roundup of feral horses, Damon has seen plenty of wild horses lately, and they don't resemble "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." They are suffering from a myriad health issues including thirst, disease, and even inbreeding.

"Some are practically injured, blind, and their hooves are long," he said, while standing by the barbed-wire fence along U.S. Highway 64.

The barbed-wire fence served as an entrapment for the 12 feral horses that were successfully captured by rangers from the Department of Resources Enforcement, laborers and chapter volunteers last Sunday in Red Valley Chapter.

The feral horses funneled through the fence into a holding pen before being shipped off to Blackhat, N.M. - site of the roundup's central detainment center - in a trailer.

In total, there were 22 feral horses rounded up in Red Valley Chapter, with 75 or so escapees taking refuge in the rugged canyons of Red Water Wash.

Damon "feels sorry" for the blind horses he's seen throughout the three weeks he's been involved with the roundups.

He's also seen some horses swarming with flies and mosquitoes, others suffering from a hacking cough, and, as he put it, "guys going after their daughters" - inbreeding that can lead to birth defects in the offspring.

Unlike the close-knit herd in "Spirit," real wild horses are self-centered individualists. It's common for a stallion to kill a foal to get to a mare in heat.

When they're not hugging the ground, braving snakebites, to hide from the stampeding horses as they're chased toward a holding pen, laborers like Damon experience the wrath of those who oppose the legally decreed and organized roundups.

Damon said when he and his colleagues were conducting roundups in the Eastern Agency chapter of Nahodishgish, the owner of the Crownpoint Basha's refused to sell them lunch.

One of his coworkers got sick during the Aug. 6-8 roundups in Piñon, Ariz., which he blamed on someone conducting a destructive ritual against the roundup personnel.

Throughout his three weeks as a laborer, which requires riding a horse on the range, putting the holding pen together or processing the horses, Damon has seen 400 to 500 horses rounded up to date. Piñon and Round Rock have hosted the biggest roundups he's experienced so far.

With more roundups scheduled until the end of September in chapters with supporting resolutions requesting roundup services, Damon said, "There's still a lot of horses out there."

He added, "You see a lot of horses neglected and abandoned. People don't know how to take care of them."

At the Red Valley roundup on Sunday, Damon was relieved rangers were present, because the day before, the laborers and volunteers were threatened by locals opposing the roundups.

In spite of those vocal local, Red Valley Chapter grazing official Harrison Yazzie said the majority of the chapter - 80 percent - is in favor of the roundups.

"Some have told us they're ready with their rifles, like an Old West deal," he said.

Before the Navajo Nation Council passed the $1.3 million emergency supplemental appropriation for the horse roundups that President Ben Shelly later signed into law on June 25, Yazzie said the chapter organized roundups of its own.

"Locals support it," he said, adding that he gets volunteer help from youth in the chapter. "Most of my crew is volunteer. We're trying to protect the range."

In between Red Valley and Cove and as far north as Beclabito and Shiprock chapters, the grazing official estimates there to be 1,000 feral horses.

Even when the roundups are occurring, Yazzie said those who fence up their horses - most being unbranded and therefore property of the Navajo Nation, according to law - only do so for a few days.

Though he wouldn't say which of the 144 active permittees are overgrazing, he said, "Some are overgrazing illegally."

When asked about what he sees out on the range, he said the feral horses are small in stature because they're breeding within their own bloodlines.

"They don't take care of it," he said about people's poor management of their horses. "If they did, we wouldn't have that much horses."

Because of the continued support of the roundup in his chapter, and since the current series of roundups will end on Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year, Yazzie anticipates more to be completed with the "entrapment method."

The entrapment method, he says, is highly effective at capturing feral horses. A corral is built around a favorite watering hole, and when the animals congregate there, someone simply closes the gate. Famous for conducting this horse roundup method is Tsé alnáoz't'i'í' grazing officer Davis Henry, who has captured 668 horses, Yazzie said.

"That will put them in there," he said, explaining that most of the 144 permittees are the ones complaining of the feral horses ravaging their grazing lands.

As a grazing official, he supports permittees resting the land by herding their animals to the higher elevations in the Lukuchakai Mountains, but some people don't follow that recommendation. There are year-round grazers who prefer to keep their livestock on the range in Red Valley, and then there are the feral animals. A single feral horse consumes five gallons of water per day, or 1,825 gallons of water per year and eats about 18 pounds of forage per day, or 6,570 pounds per year, according to the Navajo Department of Agriculture.

One of Yazzie's volunteers, Dennison Russell, supports Yazzie's effort and the recent roundups occurring across the reservation.

"A lot of these people complain about these horses," Russell said. "They say to do it. But when you start doing it they start complaining."

And like how Damon has observed the conditions of the feral horses, Russell offered the same analysis, saying most are "inbred and they're becoming small."

With the recent monsoon rains that have brought much needed moisture to the region, the volunteer horse rider said the feral horses appear to be healthier.

"I'm not for horse slaughter," he added. "I'm against it, but I'm helping them out."

Asked why the 75 or so weren't captured this time around, he said the canyon of Red Water Wash is refuge for them. The canyon is too rugged for the horses, horse riders and other helpers on the four-wheelers.

"It's too rocky," he said. "When there's no water, they come up here. Now they got plenty of water down there."

The Labor Day weekend roundups bring the total of feral horses rounded up to 958, according to Leonard Butler, head of the Department of Resource Enforcement.

Last week, he reported to the Navajo Times 788 horses had been rounded up since July 29 and throughout the month of August.

Butler maintains the roundups have occurred according to Title III of the Navajo Nation Code.

"I don't think a lot of people know the process," he said. "We follow the law the way its been written."

Title III states that roundups may occur in chapters with supporting resolutions, with the chapter coordinating the roundups. Once the chapter informs the public by a 10-day notice, the roundups occur with the mandatory presence of a livestock inspector known as a ranger.

The roundups have been going on in individual chapters for decades, but this is the first Nation-wide attempt to control feral horses. Shelly signed off on the roundups because "the Navajo Nation is in the midst of a severe drought and immediate action must be taken to alleviate the emergency conditions," he stated in declaring a drought emergency earlier this summer.

And for those who want to save the estimated 75,000 feral horses on Navajo land, Butler said they would need to get a Bureau of Indian Affairs permit to purchase them. Currently, there are two to three buyers, including Vanderwagen, N.M.-based Aquilla Martinez who purchases these horses and sells them to Mexico for meat harvesting. The Navajo Times attempted to call Martinez but he hung up as soon as the reporter identified himself.

"The main thing is to get them away from the reservation," Butler added. "We've talked about adoption, but there's no real method in doing so."

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at

Shiprock Prez: Have a heart

By Alastair Lee Bitsóí
Navajo Times

Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie agrees that the feral horses are devastating the range and something has to be done about them.

However, he thinks the tribe needs to have a heart.

On behalf of the chapter, its Advanced Local Emergency Response Team and its Feral Horse Roundup Subcommittee, Yazzie on Wednesday issued a statement expressing concern with the roundups occurring across the Nation in the chapters that have approved them.

Yazzie's concern is mostly how they're being conducted. From what he knows, the roundups have resulted in a "process that is harsh and insensitive to the people, the cultural teachings, the horse owners and the horses themselves," he writes in the statement.

He continues, "Granted there needs to be order and adherence to law, but it doesn't need to be heartless."

Yazzie was inspired to issue the statement after the Nohaaká Dine, or Earth Surface Holy People, a group of 32 elders and medicine healers from around Black Mesa, Ariz., passed a resolution opposing the ongoing roundups that have already captured nearly 1,000 feral horses.

The chapter president also questioned the success of the recent roundups, which capture of only a small fraction of the 75,000 feral horses on the range.

"Perhaps there is a better way to do this," he said, adding that the Shiprock Chapter Horse Roundup Subcommittee is considering a different approach to the roundups.

The chapter will ponder what that "different approach" might be at an information meeting scheduled for Sept. 9 at 4 p.m.

It doesn't have much time to come up with an alternative. Next week, the chapter is scheduled to have roundups organized by Navajo Department of Agriculture and its laborers and rangers from the Navajo Department of Resources Enforcement, from Sept 11-14.

"The chapter people have to make their decision before deciding on what we're going to do," Yazzie said. "The Feral Horse Roundup Subcommittee is considering withdrawing its request to participate in Department of Agriculture's roundup program and basically do our program here."

With the recent monsoon rains, a prime area feral horses congregate is in the mesas north of Shiprock, along the New Mexico-Colorado state line, Yazzie said.

Other chapters, with supporting resolutions, tentatively scheduled for roundups include:

Gadii'ahi, Alamo and Ramah chapters - Sept. 9

Gadii'ahi, Alamo, Ramah and Crystal chapters - Sept. 10

Gadii'ahi/Shiprock Boundary, Breadsprings, Red Rock, Crystal chapters - Sept. 11

Shiprock, Chilchitah, Crystal chapters - Sept. 12 and 13

Shiprock, Whitecone chapters - Sept. 14

Whitecone chapter - Sept. 15

Sheepsprings, Crownpoint, Lukachukai chapters - Sept. 16

Sheepsprings T'iisTsoh Sikaad, Lukachukai chapters - Sept. 17

Littlewater, T'iisTsoh Sikaad chapters - Sept. 18

Manuelito, Tsayatoh chapters - Sept. 19

Tsayatoh, Red Rock chapters - Sept. 20

Tonalea chapter - Sept. 21 and 22

Indian Wells chapter - Sept. 23 and 24

Two Grey Hills/Toadlena chapter - Sept. 25, 26 and 27

Huerfano chapter - Sept. 26 and 27

Rock Point, Teec Nos Pos chapters - Sept. 28 and 29.