Legal protection for Arizona’s famous Salt River wild horses is a crucial step closer after a bill to safeguard the animals received unanimous support from a state senate committee.
The bill, which was passed by state lawmakers in the House on February 25, has this week received the full backing of the state Senate’s Committee on Federalism, Mandates and Fiscal Responsibility.
Horse advocates who filled the committee meeting room cheered when the unanimous vote was announced.
The bill, introduced by Representative Kelly Townsend, is expected to go before the full senate for a vote soon.
The iconic wild horses, which live alongside the Salt River in Tonto National Forest, near Mesa, are a popular tourist attraction. They can regularly be seen wading into the river to graze on the aquatic grasses.
The horses are a popular tourist attraction, but do not qualify for federal protection as they do no reside within a formally designated wild horse management area.
The herd made headlines last year when the US Forest Service, which runs the park, announced plans to remove the herd.
The Salt River Wild Horses Management Group (SRWHMG) spearheaded a major social media campaign against the proposal which persuaded the forest service to can those plans. Efforts were then made to find a long-term solution over the management of the horses.
“The Salt River wild horses are a very important economic, historic and recreational resource”, SRWHMG president Simone Netherlands said in her testimony to the Senate committee.
“Should they ever be rounded up, it would be a robbing of this community and a robbing of the state of Arizona.”
Netherlands called the bill a commonsense approach and urged the committee members to pass the bill.
As currently written, the bill:
- Defines the horses as an economic, historic and recreational resource of the state, not stray animals;
- Criminalizes the harassment or killing of a Salt River wild horse;
- Defines their historic habitat on the lower Salt River;
- Provides a process to humanely manage the horses in a partnership with community groups and address the safety concerns for both the horses and the public;
- No longer presents a fiscal burden to the state because the bill does not assert state ownership of the horses, who reside on federal land.
Netherlands noted that the bill also had the support of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and the Humane Society of the United States, both of which were also represented at the hearing.
Suzanne Roy, who is executive director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, said: “We hope that the Senate will listen to the strong will of Arizonans, who want the Salt River horses recognized and protected on the lands where they have roamed for well over a century.”
The SRWHMG urged supporters to contact Arizona state senators to ask them to support the bill. The group originally opposed the bill, because it named the state agriculture department as owners of the wild horses.
However, amendments removed that provision, allowing the group to throw its support behind the bill.