Community protests, demands protection for Salt River horses
Video by Brian Fore and Josh Cutlip
The past, present and future of the Salt River horses
Story by Bryce Bozadjian, photos by Brian Fore
On July 31, 2015, officials from the U.S. Forest Service issued an intent to roundup and sell at public auction approximately 100 horses that inhabit the Salt River and Tonto National Forest in Arizona due to growing concerns for public safety.
The notice gave seven days for any possible owners to claim the unauthorized livestock with proof of branding or legal documentation of ownership.
Immediately, advocates for the Salt River horses sprung to action, speaking out against the roundup.
“We thought our horses were going to be gone…but we did not want that to happen,” said Simone Netherlands, President of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group.
The SRWHMG is a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 to preserve, protect and monitor the Salt River horses. According to Netherlands, the organization’s cause has roots as far back as 20 years.
Netherlands added that she and other members keep records of each horse in order to “keep scientific perspective on birth rates, death rates and migration patterns, as well as herd dynamics.”
The organization quickly created a petition urging the USFS to accept a preservation proposal. The petition has over 275,000 signatures.
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Phoenix, met with Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth shortly after the roundup was proposed.
According to Townsend, Bosworth was anxious to resolve the issue as the USFS only has jurisdiction over the land but not the horses that inhabit it.
“He felt like his hands were tied, legally, to deal with issues regarding the horses, and no one really had any jurisdiction over the horses,” Townsend said.
Bosworth first pushed back the roundup to late August, but then issued a minimum roundup postponement of 120 days, during which he would meet with advocacy groups and stakeholders to discuss other solutions.
He also added a 30-day public notice to be issued after the postponement, as opposed to the previous seven-day period, in which owners will have another opportunity to claim the horses.
Relieved by the postponement, Netherlands said it gave the Forest Service time to “sit down with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and all other stakeholders and interested parties and come to solutions for these horses.”
In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which granted 200 parcels of land in the Western United States for certain horses and burros that could live safely without the threat of injury or removal by those outside of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“The Forest Service was required to survey all of their lands to determine if there were any horse or burro populations currently on the forest,” Templin said.
During the 1973 survey, surveyors found both burros and horses. However, all of the horses that were found were claimed by tribes from Fort McDowell or Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribes, according to the survey. Therefore, the BLM did not designate an area for the horses.
The USFS claims that, legally, the Salt River horses are not protected under the 1971 act.
Netherlands refutes this notion, stating, “There are no statements from either reservation that they claimed the horses.”
She believes the horses were managed by the USFS before 1971. In 1978, the USFS attempted a roundup but failed to capture the horses.
The roundup controversy begins with the question of the horses’ origins and whether or not they were around before the act and subsequent survey.
According to Netherlands, the horses originated from Father Eusebio Kino, a Spanish Jesuit missionary, who she claims introduced horses to the local Native American tribes.
Although there is no written record dating back to Kino’s time in the late 17th century, there is an article from 1890 claiming the horses as native stock.
Templin acknowledges that horses have historically been transported to the United States from other countries, but believes the horses have come from neighboring tribes as well as released by nearby ranchers.
Townsend believes the horses are a mix of both wild and previously domesticated, or feral, horses. She claims they were introduced into the forest area by owners who could not support them.
“We also see some of the horses that do not have the characteristics of typical wild horses,” she stated, referring to the white coats that stand out from traditional dark coloring of wild horses.
Regardless of their origins, the issue of horses occupying recreational areas, like the Butcher Jones Recreation Site, and previous occurrences of horses being hit by vehicles along the Bush highway and other roads are significant threats to public safety and the health and well-being of the horses.
According to Templin, there is a good amount of signage on the roads. However, she said there have been at least two incidences since August 2015 where horses were allegedly hit by vehicles.
The first incident was suspected to be a hit-and-run based on the skid marks left on the pavement. However, the vehicle was not found and no report was filed.
The second incident happened when a motorcyclist did not see the horse while coming around a corner in the dark.
The USFS is liable for any action that happens on the Forest Service land, Templin said.
Netherlands is pushing for more road adjustments and more high-tech signage, such as motion-censored, flashing lights that detect when a horse or other animal is about to cross the road.
While the USFS has obvious reasons to be concerned about public safety in highly-visited recreational areas, Netherlands argued that few, if any, incidents between horses and humans actually occur because the horses are accustomed to humans and know to keep their distance.
Safety issues appear when there is human interference with the horses, such as when a person tries to ride a horse or a dog barks at or chases one.
“It’s not the horses that are the problem. It’s the human beings,” Townsend said.
She proposes designating a full-time employee to oversee the recreational areas, and has discussed fencing around the roads with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). Due to previous problems with horses accessing water, some fences had been removed near the Butcher Jones Recreation Site in the past.
The Salt River horses are an economic asset for the state of Arizona as many tourists from all parts of the world come to see and photograph them.
Townsend is hoping for a hands-off management system to be put in place to monitor the horses, which she says are not growing exponentially because of Darwinian theories such as natural selection.
She continues to work with state, federal, public and private stakeholders on potential solutions.
“At the end of the day, these are Arizona’s horses,” Townsend said. “We love them, we want them to stay, and we need to find a good solution that makes sense for everybody whether or not they were here before the act or not.”
According to Townsend, other proposed ideas are to create an adoption system for the younger foals, establish a state park on the land or reclassify the herd as a part of the 1971 act, therefore ensuring they are not unauthorized livestock.
By working with state and federal officials, Townsend hopes to amend the 1971 act or create new legislation.
“We’re still in the exploring phase. We’re looking at things that would help keep the public safe and keep the land as pristine as possible while at the same time keeping the horses,” she said.
Netherlands has proposed other solutions, including what she described as a humane and cost-effective Porcine zona pellucida birth control, which she says her group is certified in darting into mares.
This birth control method does not affect hormones and will not disturb the horses’ behavior and the herds’ dynamics, she said.
Netherlands also said the USFS could establish a territory or protected area for the horses, granting the USFS a budget to manage the horses.
Although there is congressional support, she does not believe an act of congress is necessary for the horses to be protected and argues the USFS already has the authority to manage the horses.
“We stand ready with our time, our expertise and our many volunteers to really make a difference in this area,” she said.
With many proposed solutions and no imminent threat of a future roundup, the USFS, state and federal legislators, the SRWHMG, other stakeholders and the community will continue to work toward a common goal of protecting the horses.
“What I am concerned with is two things,” Townsend said. “Regardless of where those horses came from, they are living wild out in the Salt River area. The second, more important, thing is that these are an Arizona treasure that the people don’t want to see gone.”