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Authorities don't know who is shooting free-roaming horses in the Utah desert

A skull of a horse that was apparently shot on a patch of desert bordering the Navajo Nation in Utah.
Justin Higginbottom
A skull of a horse that was apparently shot on a patch of desert bordering the Navajo Nation in Utah.

MOAB, Utah — On a remote patch of Utah desert bordering the Navajo Nation in Utah, hundreds of horses roam free on the shrubby desert that stretches across red rock canyons all the way to the forested slopes of Bears Ears National Monument. To some, they're majestic wildlife that symbolize the freedom of wide-open western landscapes. To others, they're an out of control population displacing cattle and damaging the ecosystem.

Lately, dozens of horses there are being found dead, apparently from gunshot wounds.

Brothers Wayne and David Yanito are Navajo ranchers and farmers whose families have been here for generations. They love coming across the free roaming horses when they're out on the land.

"When you're out there in the middle of nowhere — nothing — all of a sudden, you see a horse. Whoa! There's actually something out here! It makes your day," Wayne Yanito says. "It just makes your day."

The modern horse wasn't on the continent until the Spanish brought them by boat from Europe in the 15th century. But an ancient breed of horse native to North America is part of the Navajo creation story. David Yanito explains it has held an important place in the tribe's culture.

"These new generations, they don't believe that no more," he says ruefully.

He says the horses are all part of a connected natural world.

"While they're running, you'll hear a thunder," he says. "The next day it will start to sprinkle. Lightning comes down and hits the ground and makes that vibration," he says. "Boom, boom, boom."

The Yanito brothers have worked maintaining dirt roads for San Juan County for years, so they're out on this landscape a lot. About a year ago, they started finding dead horses near those roads. They started looking for more.

On a recent day, David Yanito launched a drone with a camera that he bought to monitor the cattle they raise. It doesn't take long for him to pick out the bleaching bones of a dead animal in the morning sun against the mostly bare beige soil.

"You can see it's all white. When the sun hits it, you can really see it," he says.

When the brothers walk over to investigate, they quickly see it's not just one dead horse.

"Two more down here. Three right here," Wayne Yanito counts off. "Four up there. Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine ..."

"Oh my goodness that's a lot of horses," his brother exclaims. "Someone went to town."

They've been marking all the carcasses they've found since last January. By the end of the day, the total is up to 23, and they suspect there are more they haven't found.

David Yanito holds up a skull with two small unnaturally round holes under the eye socket.

The Yanito brothers use drones to monitor the cattle they raise.
/ Justin Higginbottom
Justin Higginbottom
The Yanito brothers use drones to monitor the cattle they raise.

"Yeah, that's a bullet hole," he says, making making the sound of a gun. "Ricocheted out right there," he adds as he points to another small hole in the skull. "One came out the eye socket."

No one knows who is shooting the horses or why.

But free roaming horses have long been a source of conflict here and in other parts of the West. In some places, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) tries to manage their population, and gets intense criticism for both removing them or trying to control their numbers, and for not removing them. The horses eat the scarce vegetation, which means less grass is available for other animals, including the cattle that ranchers run on a lot of federally owned land.

Ranchers like Tyrel Cressler.

"They just keep multiplying, and then they're gonna starve or they gotta go somewhere else," Cressler says.

Cressler leases the BLM land where the Yanitos found many of the dead horses.

"But when I talked to the BLM about using that, they told me ... that there was too many horses down there," he says. "And there wasn't any feed, and they weren't going to let me use it at all."

Cressler is clear that his frustration at not being able to graze his cattle would never lead to him killing horses.

"I'm like anybody else. I don't want to see them shot by any means," he says.

"If the BLM paid for the materials, I would be willing to build a fence along the river," Cressler says. "And I would put forth the labor, and I would build a fence to stop that stuff from happening in the future."

The river is the San Juan River. It's the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation here. Tens of thousands horses roam free on Navajo land. Five years ago, nearly 200 were found dead of thirst and the Nation proposed holding a hunt to reduce their numbers. There was strong backlash against the idea, and the hunt never happened.

But Cressler says the decades-long drought here means more animals from the Nation are now migrating off it in search of food and water.

"Since it's been dry, the river's been low and they've just been able to walk across it," he says of the muddy brown tributary of the Colorado River. "And so there's definitely been a lot more animals, cattle and horses that have come over."

Cressler says he thinks it's unlikely a rancher with grazing rights on federal land shot the horses. They would be afraid of the BLM revoking their grazing permit, or maybe revenge from their neighbors.

The local county sheriff is investigating the shootings, but he hasn't said much about progress.

Wayne and David Yanito are keeping their eyes open for clues. David is confident there will eventually be justice.

"I say it to myself, that horse seen the person that shot him," he says standing over the bones of an animal they found near a road. "That horse, inside their eyeballs, there's a man standing from here, probably over there. Probably parked right there and shot it right here and this horse seen it. It's going to catch up with him. It's going to catch up with those people that's doing it."

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Justin Higginbottom