Feral horse roundups continuing

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 31, 2013

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Pictures and videos surfacing on social media over the weekend of an Oct. 25 roundup that captured 42 feral horses in Chilchinbeto, Ariz., confused the Navajo public, primarily the Noohokai Diné, a grassroots organization advocating against the roundup of those feral, abandoned horses being sold to buyers for adoption or slaughter.

It was confusing mostly because Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, in an Oct. 8 press release, publicly stated he, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife had formed an agreement about the Navajo horses, estimated to number about 75,000 and a factor in the overgrazing of the semiarid reservation.

According to Erny Zah, Shelly's spokesman, the reservation-wide roundups endorsed by the Navajo Nation Council and Shelly over the summer, will continue to occur until an official memorandum of understanding is executed between Shelly and Richardson and the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife occurs.

In an interview with the Navajo Times on Tuesday, Zah told the Navajo Times that the MOA Shelly and Richardson agreed to approximately two weeks ago is only one "in principle."

"If you read the press release, in the lead, it's an agreement in principle, meaning that's what we agreed to," said Zah.

Language in the Oct. 8 press release states that both Shelly and Richardson "have reached an agreement in principle in which the Navajo Nation would suspend horse round ups making way to halting the sale of Navajo horses to horse processing plants."

Once the agreement is signed, Richardson, along with actor and filmmaker Robert Redford, will work through the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife to help the tribe address its feral horse issue. They have pledged to help the tribe manage its feral horse population with equine birth control, adoption, land management and public education, among other possible solutions.

Because the MOA hasn't been signed and since it's in the hands of the Navajo Department of Justice for review, roundups haven't officially been suspended, Zah added.

"We have to keep chapters in mind, too," Zah said. "The chapters have asked for the roundups. These chapters are basically asking for our help. That part is overlooked."

Unlike the summer roundups, which were funded by a $1.4 million supplemental appropriation that Council passed and Shelly signed into tribal law, the chapter itself organized the Chilchinbeto roundup.

The roundups in Many Farms, Ariz., on Tuesday, which captured 10 horses, and the one scheduled Wednesday in Blue Gap, Ariz., also were both chapter-organized, community-based ones.

Leo Watchman, department manager for the Navajo Department of Agriculture, confirmed this, saying that the horses being rounded up "are not all going to slaughter."

He added that there are 75 different chapters with chapter resolutions requesting the Department of Agriculture and Department of Resources Enforcement requesting their services to transport and process the feral horses.

"We're sort of in a predicament," Watchman said. "All we're essentially doing is meeting the demands of the communities."

And unlike those ones organized in the summer by the tribal departments, the chapter roundups that are scheduled for the rest of October and all the way into December will see chapters supplying the labor force along with volunteers from those respective communities.

The continued operation of the feral horse roundups by the Navajo Department of Agriculture and Navajo Department of Resource Enforcement is contradictory to what the president stated two weeks ago, according to Leland Grass and the Noohokai Diné ("Holy Earth Surface People"), of Black Mesa, Ariz.

Speaking on behalf of Noohokai Diné and some traditional healers against the recent roundups, Grass said the MOA that will be signed between Shelly and Richardson doesn't address the issue as it relates to the protection of indigenous rights and deeply held spiritual beliefs.

Grass, who captured the Chilchinbeto roundup last week with photos and video, saw three foals being left behind while their mothers were rounded up. He claimed they were hauled off for "impound to sell, auction, and slaughter in Mexico."

He also claims that the Navajo Department of Agriculture is taking people's horses off their legitimate grazing and land use areas.

"They stay away from rugged and rough terrain to get to those feral horse and wild horses, but attack people's horses," he said.

Regarding the MOA between Shelly and Richardson, Grass said it's a publicity stunt. Grass charged that Shelly didn't listen to his own people, which in part as created tension among community folks at the local level.

"The press release issued by Ben Shelly's office is a hoax and/or a joke," Grass said.

As of Wednesday, rangers from the Navajo Department of Resource Enforcement have processed 1,405 feral horses, according to Leonard Butler, chief ranger and manager for the department.

Most of those horses are unbranded -- 872 -- with 533 being branded, abandoned horses. Of the 37 chapters in which roundups have already occurred, the chapters of Coyote Canyon (141), Round Rock (107), Chinle (103), Tsaile (89) and Sheep Springs (86) are the chapters with the highest number of feral and abandoned horses captured.

"Until we get any order from the president's office, we'll continue the roundups," Butler said, adding he hasn't seen a "cease-and-desist order."

Lukachukai Chapter is scheduled for a roundup today and Forest Lake on Friday, Nov. 1. Dennehotso Chapter is scheduled for roundups next week on Nov. 4 and 5. St. Michaels Chapter is slated for Nov. 7 and Chichiltah Chapter on Nov. 8.

Other chapters include Rock Point on Nov. 12, Red Lake on Nov. 18 and 19, and Teesto on Nov. 21-22. Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, Oaksprings Chapter has two scheduled for Oct. 25 and 26.

Ramah, Gadiahi, Red Valley, Red Mesa, Cove, Teec Nos Pos and Chinle chapters are all scheduled for the first two weeks in December.

"Along with the Department of Agriculture, were still going at it," Butler said.

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