By Cat Supawit
The origins of the Salt River horses have been the center of recent controversy regarding their future. An estimated 100 horses roam the lower Salt River in the Tonto National Forest, an area that was once home to Native Americans and early American settlers.
While some argue the horses are descendants of horses brought to the area in the 1600’s, others argue the horses are unauthorized livestock recently released into the Tonto National Forest by ranchers and native tribes.
There is a possibility that, around this time, Kino made treks north toward the Tonto area. However, no missions have been discovered there.
The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG) and others believe the Salt River horses are descendants of Spanish horses brought by Kino.
Late 1870’s to early 1900’s – Early American settlers arrive at the Tonto region for mining and agriculture, re-creating ancient Hohokam irrigation systems to farm the land. The ingenuity of these early settlers leads to the building of the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Today, the Phoenix area still relies on the Salt River and other tributaries as a water resource.
1890 – The Arizona Champion writes an article paraphrasing Capt. Isaac N. Town stating that the horses in the Tonto region are “native stock”.
Town was returning from a Territorial Live Stock Sanitary Commissioners meeting to discuss a herd of sickly horses.
The SRWHMG and others cite this article as evidence of the horses’ history along the Salt River.
1905 – The Tonto National Forest is established.
1971 – The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 is passed, defining wild free-roaming horses and burros as “all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States”.
1973 – The act prompts the Forest Service to conduct a survey to determine if any wild horses or burros live in the forest and river areas.
The survey finds wild burros, but also states that all horses found belong to ranchers or native tribes.
1973 to present – The Forest Service claims that since the survey was conducted, ranchers and native tribes had released horses into the Tonto National Forest, possibly due to the inability to care for them. This designates the Salt River horses as “unauthorized livestock”.
The Forest Service holds that it is not legally authorized to manage the horses according to the 1971 act.
To deal with the growing population of the Salt River horses, the Forest Service announces the intent to roundup the horses in 2015.
The SRWHMG, local and national politicians and many community members are strongly against the roundup. Many believe the horses were living along the Salt River before the 1973 survey.
The SRWHMG proposes to keep the horses in the Tonto area and implement management of the horses.