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

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In a remote patch of rangeland bordering the Navajo Nation in Utah, hundreds of horses roam wild. But lately, some of them have been found dead, apparently from gunshot wounds. Justin Higginbottom reports.

JUSTIN HIGGINBOTTOM, BYLINE: You can see far in this corner of southeastern Utah, across shrubby red desert and dark rocky mesas all the way to the forested slopes of Bears Ears National Monument. The Yanito brothers, Wayne and David, are Navajo ranchers and farmers. Their families have been here for generations. They love coming across the free-roaming horses when they're out on the land. Here's Wayne.

WAYNE YANITO: When you're out there in the middle of nowhere, nothing. All of a sudden, you see a horse - like, whoa. There's actually something out here. And it makes your day. It just makes your day.

HIGGINBOTTOM: 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. And, David Yanito explains, it's held an important place in the tribe's culture.

DAVID YANITO: These new generations are - they don't believe that no more.

HIGGINBOTTOM: David says the horses are all part of a connected natural world.

YANITO: While they're running, you'll hear a thunder (imitating thunder sounds). And then by the time they get all sweat up, by the time they get over to the other sheep camp over there, and then the next day it'll start to sprinkle. Lightning comes down and hits the ground and makes that vibration. Boom. Boom. Boom.

HIGGINBOTTOM: The Yanito brothers have worked maintaining dirt roads for the 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.

YANITO: Here we go.

HIGGINBOTTOM: On a recent day, David launches a drone with a camera that he got to monitor the cattle they raise.

YANITO: Then watch. They'll come right straight towards us.

HIGGINBOTTOM: It doesn't take long.

YANITO: And I flew across this way. This one - I've seen this one in the morning sun. You can see it's all white. In the morning when the sun hits it, you can really see it.

HIGGINBOTTOM: They walk out to investigate, and Wayne quickly sees it's not just one dead horse.

YANITO: Two more down here, three right here, four up there, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.

YANITO: That's a brand-new one. Oh, my goodness. That's a lot of horses. Somebody went to town.

HIGGINBOTTOM: By the end of the day, the number of carcasses they've found since last January adds up to 23. David holds up a skull we've come across with two small, unnaturally round holes under the eye socket.

YANITO: Yeah, that's a bullet hole.

HIGGINBOTTOM: Yeah.

YANITO: (Imitating gunshots) Ricochet out right there. One came out of the eye socket.

HIGGINBOTTOM: No one knows who's shooting the horses or why, but they've long been a source of conflict here and in other parts of the West. The horses eat the scarce vegetation in this desert. That means less grass is available for the cattle that ranchers run here, ranchers like Tyrel Cressler.

TYREL CRESSLER: They just keep multiplying. And then they either going to starve or they've got to go somewhere else.

HIGGINBOTTOM: Cressler leases the public land where the Yanitos found many of the dead horses from the Federal Bureau of Land Management, the BLM.

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

HIGGINBOTTOM: Cressler's clear. His frustration at not being able to graze his cattle would never lead to him killing horses.

CRESSLER: I'm like anybody else. I don't want to see them shot by any means. I mean, if the BLM paid for the materials, I would be willing to build a fence along the river, and I would put forth the labor, and I would build a fence to stop that stuff from happening in the future.

HIGGINBOTTOM: The river is the San Juan River. It's the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation here. There are tens of thousands of free-roaming horses there. But Cressler says the decades-long drought here means more animals from the nation are now migrating off of it in search of food and water.

CRESSLER: Since it's been dry, the river has been low, and they've just - they've been able to walk across it.

HIGGINBOTTOM: Cressler says he thinks it's unlikely a rancher with grazing rights shot the horses. They'd be afraid of the BLM revoking their grazing permit or maybe revenge from their neighbors. The shootings are being investigated by the local county sheriff, who hasn't said much about progress. Wayne and David Yanito are keeping their eyes open for clues.

YANITO: I say to myself, that horse seen the person that shot him - probably parked right there and shot it right here, and this horse seen it.

HIGGINBOTTOM: David says justice is going to catch up with whoever is killing the animals.

For NPR News, I'm Justin Higginbottom in San Juan County, Utah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Higginbottom

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