Lawmakers wade into debate over Arizona’s iconic river horses

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Court action has been filed by wild horse advocates in a bid to stop federal authorities removing the Salt River wild horses. Photo: Salt River Wild Horse Management Group
Court action has been filed by wild horse advocates in a bid to stop federal authorities removing the Salt River wild horses. Photo: Salt River Wild Horse Management Group

Lawmakers across the political spectrum have called for a halt to the planned US Forest Service removal of Arizona’s famous Salt River wild horses. Their calls came as horse advocates filed a lawsuit to stop the roundup.

The Forest Service posted a formal notice on July 31 advising that an operation to muster the horses in Tonto National Forest, in Mesa, could begin as soon as Friday. Reports have since suggested that federal authorities have yet to engage a contractor for the work and it was unlikely to start until September.

The plan would see around 100 horses that live along the Salt River removed and then auctioned. Advocates fear some of them would ultimately enter the slaughter pipeline as a result.

The horses, which have lived in the area for nearly a century, are not protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which applies only to mustangs living in formally recognized management areas.

The Salt River wild horses have uniquely adapted to their environmental and will often wade into the flowing water to eat the aquatic grasses.

Pressure has been mounting on the Forest Service to at least delay the operation, with lawmakers calling for the roundup to be stopped.

US lawmakers have written to authorities seeking to stop the muster. Photo: Salt River Wild Horse Management Group
US lawmakers have written to authorities seeking to stop the muster. Photo: Salt River Wild Horse Management Group

US Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) have written to the Forest Service and the Arizona Department of Agriculture seeking a postponement until there had been enough public engagement in the process.

“A growing number of our constituents have expressed deep reservations about the Forest Service’s intent to gather these horses and transfer them to the Arizona Department of Agriculture,” the pair said.

“We request that you postpone action until there has been sufficient public engagement in the process.”

They also sought answers to several questions, centering around the intended fate of the horses, how long they had lived in the region, and whether the Forest Service had engaged with horse advocates over a possible management plan.

Rep. Matt Salmon confirmed that he had written to federal Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking that he immediately halt the planned operation. The letter was also signed by Congressman David Schweikert and Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema.

“Wild horses are an integral part of the history of America’s West, and the latest move by the US Forest Service to impound the herd that roams near Mesa, Arizona shows a disappointing lack of understanding of the priorities and needs of the local community,” Salmon said.

“It is critical that we preserve America’s natural beauty and history, not destroy it in a misguided attempt to remove the herd from these lands.

Horses are known to roamed the Salt River area for nearly a century. Photo: Salt River Wild Horse Management Group
Horses are known to roamed the Salt River area for nearly a century. Photo: Salt River Wild Horse Management Group

“I’m pleased that some of my colleagues have joined me in calling for this round-up to be halted, and I look forward to the Forest Service quickly acknowledging the voice of the people and reversing their decision.”

Meanwhile, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and its president, Simone Netherlands, have filed a lawsuit in a bid to have the roundup stopped.

The group filed its action against federal authorities on Wednesday in the US District Court in Arizona.

They seek a temporary restraining order to stop the roundup and injunctive relief that would keep the horses in their habitat.

The plaintiffs assert in filed paperwork that the Forest Service “arbitrarily and without adequate investigation” determined that the horses that lived around the Lower Salt River should be removed.

They assert that federal authorities, in reaching the decision, not only violated the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, but the National Environmental Protection Act.

Evidence, they said, indicated that horses had lived in the area since at least the 1930s.

The horses have also found ally in Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who tweeted: “Feds should leave our free roaming #wildhorses alone. But if they don’t, #AZ will do everything we can to protect them & provide sanctuary.”

Meanwhile, the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife, founded by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and actor Robert Redford, has joined with Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation to urge federal officials to halt the roundup.

“We are adding our voice to the outpouring of support for the Salt River wild horse herd to remain proudly protected as a Heritage Herd in their current habitat within the Tonto National Forest,” Richardson said.

“We applaud Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s bold support of the Salt River wild horse herd and urge more officials to express their opposition to the proposed removal.”

The president of Return to Freedom, Neda DeMayo, said: “The horses enrich the experience of the tourists to the area and enrich the lives of the local community who are proud of this Heritage Herd.”

They noted that, just across the river, the herd that lives on the Pima-Maricopa Tribal lands was being managed with birth control by the tribe.

The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community said its tribal land was next to the Tonto National Forest on its eastern boundary. The Salt and Verde rivers were on the community’s eastern edge.

It said it had been unaware of Forest Service plans to muster the horses in the forest.

It said an active Wild Free-Roaming Horse Ordinance had been place within the tribal community since the 1970s that recognized the animals’ contribution to the diversity of the community, while enriching the lives of people.

“At any given time, there are approximately 60 wild free-roaming horses in the river area within the tribal boundaries of the community near the Salt and Verde Rivers,” it said in a statement.

“Additionally, the community has a northern range herd that has approximately 180 wild horses within the range area of the community.

“If a wild free-roaming horse is within the community boundaries, it is subject to the community’s ordinance for protection,” the tribe said.

The social media campaign to keep the horses in the wild has gathered considerable momentum in recent days, with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group reporting on its Facebook page that it had been inundated with messages of support for its endeavors.

Legal paperwork in the action can be read here and here
Earlier report

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