On Navajo land in northern Arizona, almost 200 wild horses lay dead. Drought and famine conditions pushed the horses to endlessly search for food and water, yet they were unable to find relief before being overtaken by the elements.
Members of the Navajo Nation stumbled upon the dead horses at a mostly-dry watering hole near Gray Mountain, reports CNN. The carcasses, some of them buried neck-deep in mud, were in various stages of decay. A total of 191 horses died, per the official count from tribe officials.
“These animals were searching for water to stay alive,” said Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez. “In the process, they, unfortunately, burrowed themselves into the mud and couldn’t escape because they were so weak.”
An unseasonably dry winter and little water runoff at the start of spring are likely behind the drought conditions hitting northern Arizona. Unfortunately, tribe officials do not expect conditions to improve anytime soon and believe there are many more animals yet to found.
The watering hole where the dead horses were found is a favorite spot for all kinds of animals to find relief from the dry environment. However, local residents have noticed the pool of water drying up faster and faster with each passing year. Despite suffering drought conditions themselves, many tribe members would bring truckloads of water up to the pond and leave it for the area wildlife.
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Witnessing the devasting effects of the hot desert, Charlie Smith, Jr. described the scene to CBS News after he visited the watering hole three weeks ago. At that time, there were only 29 dead horses on the ground.
“It’s very emotional. I kept calling my sister saying ‘this is bad.’ It just hits you. You tear up. You know you don’t have the capability to save them.”
On Navajo Nation land, there are tens of thousands of wild horses roaming the countryside. The reservation is over 27,000 square miles and stretches across Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. While some think the horses should be captured, Navajo officials have mostly halted such roundups, citing spiritual beliefs.
To prevent a further pileup of horses, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs placed fencing around the watering hole on Friday. Heavy equipment was also brought in to move the carcasses closer together, and a fresh coat of hydrated lime was spread over the site to expedite decomposition. Eventually, all the animals will be buried on site.
Although the scene is tragic, one small horse less than 4-weeks-old was saved and taken to a vet clinic. The foal was extremely dehydrated, but is expected to survive and ultimately adopted.