As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the Navajo Nation, with 8,042 confirmed cases as of this week according to the Navajo Nation Health Command Operations Center, volunteers in the area continue to fight for the health and safety of all living things. With the monsoon season still to come, Gray Mountain Horse Heroes and other volunteer organizations strive to bring food and water to the wild horses that make their home between northern Arizona and the nation’s largest reservation.
“I joined in 2018, in June, after I read in the Arizona Daily Sun that 200 horses had died out there in the Gray Mountain area, and that a group had been created to help,” Gray Mountain Horse Heroes volunteer Joseph Padilla said.
During the 2018 drought, 191 wild horses, or mustangs, were killed after being trapped in a former tank wash in Gray Mountain that had turned to mud. The tragic incident and the tremendous response thereafter led to the formation of a global support network to assist the vulnerable mustangs going forward.
“All these horses needed was hay and water,” founding member Eileen Taggart said. “People from all over the world donated. It got huge.”
Since its founding and subsequent global spotlight, volunteers on the ground have been dedicated to their mission. Padilla hauls water and hay for the organization, among other duties. During the dry season, Padilla is responsible for filling more than 1,000 gallons of water in troughs and water tanks for the feral horses of Gray Mountain each day, seven days a week.
“I’ve been doing the same thing since 2018. My water tote carries 330 gallons, plus it’s nine miles to Cameron where they have a water fill. Then I make a couple fills a day. Just takes a couple hours,” Padilla said.
Humbly, he is quick to note that he is not the only one putting in the hours on behalf of the horses.
“One couple drives up every Thursday from Prescott, a retired police officer and his wife,” he said. “They haul hay and a 500-gallon water tote. They just love seeing the horses. There's some local folks that live in the Gray Mountain, too, they have water totes and they fill. It’s a joint effort between a lot of people.”
Hauling water will be a necessity for the horses until the summer monsoon season arrives.
“When the monsoons come they fill the dirt tanks up on the mountain. The mustangs retreat to the mountain, that’s their natural habitat. Then we won’t see them again except on some rare occasion. Usually we won’t see them until next June,” Padilla said.
Though the monsoons have not yet reached northern Arizona, there have been some sporadic rain storms across the reservation and into New Mexico.
“They got a gully washer last week,” Padilla said. “All the dirt tanks were filled.”
According to a 2020 joint study by Navajo Technical University and Texas A&M University, there are 32 genetically distinct breeds of wild horses living across the five agencies of the Navajo Nation. Estimates by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2017 set the total number of mustangs on Navajo land at close to 40,000. As for the herd at Gray Mountain? The numbers vary.
“I was watering this morning and I saw 20 at the windmill, 20 on the plateau,” Padilla said. “There are bands of 10 to 12 horses that run from the top of the mountain to [U.S. Highway Route] 89. Probably a hundred or more.”
As of late, the GMHH have pivoted their efforts to help bring aid to the people of the Navajo Nation as well as they battle the pandemic.
“When COVID-19 hit, Paul Lincoln and Glenda Seweingyawma reached out to me saying, ‘Hey, families are suffering out here.’ So we started a GoFundMe and we’ve already raised 16,000 for the reservation,” Taggart said.
But the volunteer horse organization has found themselves at irons with the Navajo Nation with their own response to the horse crisis: the tribally-sponsored round-ups known as the Equine Reward Program.
In the summer of 2018, the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture unveiled its Equine Reward Program to encourage the removal of unbranded free-roaming horses from tribal land due to overgrazing, inbreeding, declining range conditions and extended droughts.
The program, funded by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, offered a $50 promissory note for each trapped and surrendered horse which in turn would be auctioned off by the Navajo government.
The tribal government’s round-up efforts have reported 3,000 mustangs captured in 2018, 1,500 the following year and nearly 600 this year according to the Department of Agriculture’s website.
But the ERP has its critics among some members of the Gray Mountain Horse Heroes.
“A bunch of us protested the round-ups to the Navajo Nation,” Padilla said. “Dr. Rudy Shebala, in Window Rock, he’s the head of the Department of Natural Resources. He adopted a Gray Mountain horse in 2018. He put a stop to the rewards program, which is a bounty. That’s what it is really is, a bounty. But he halted that.”
Dr. Rudy Shebala is the executive director of the Navajo Nation Department of Natural Resources which oversees the Department of Agriculture and the ERP.
“We want to ensure we move forward reducing the numbers [of feral horses on the Navajo Nation] in a scientifically and culturally appropriate manner where we are not slaughtering horses,” Dr. Shebala said in a July 2 article in Horsetalk.co.nz. Dr. Shebala was unavailable for comment at the time this article was published.
But the real driver in the decision to suspend the ERP appears to be COVID-19. In light of the catastrophic impact of the pandemic among the Navajo people, the Nation announced that all ERP events would be canceled until further notice.
“We thought we were good, but last Tuesday night, someone driving from Tuba City to Flagstaff said they saw riders chasing horses, three colts, three mares. We reported to the Navajo Rangers. They are investigating it,” Padilla said.
The Department of Agriculture for their part denies claims that round-ups have been occurring in the Gray Mountain area.
“The Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture has not scheduled any round-up in 2020 and has not removed or caused to remove any horses from Gray Mountain in the past two or more years,” the department wrote in a post to its official Facebook page.
“Despite what people say, we love and respect all of our animals, but have to do the removal to ensure we have a manageable number,” Judy June, principal planner for the ERP program, said in a press release.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.