Arizona Governor Doug Ducey Wednesday signed House Bill 2340 into law, making it a crime to take, harass, kill, or otherwise interfere with a popular herd of wild horses that runs free along the Salt River northeast of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest.
Christine Antaya, a volunteer with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, a nonprofit that has been advocating for the herd for several years, burst out of the Arizona State Capitol doors with both arms raised above her head in victory.
"It's done!" she shouted. "It's signed!"
Across the courtyard, a few dozen of fellow volunteers wearing matching white T-shirts with a wild horse prancing across the chest, cheered exuberantly.
"I'm ecstatic," Antaya said. "There is still a lot of work to be done. But this is the baseline. They are now protected."
The volunteers, some mounted on horses, spent the morning walking up and down 17th Avenue in celebration, waving flags imprinted with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group logo and dancing to Kool & the Gang's "Celebration."
They, along with thousands of other Arizonans, have been rallying to save the horses since July 31, 2015, when the U.S. Forest Service, citing safety concerns, announced plans to round up the horses and auction them off. Hundreds marched to support the horses; tens of thousands called and emailed the Forest Service to plead on their behalf.
Wild horses are already protected from harassment under the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. However, the Forest Service argues, when the government took stock of the nation's wild horses in order to designate territories for them after the act was passed, the herd's ancestors were identified as escaped livestock — not wild horses. They do not, therefore, qualify for conservation.
State Representative Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa), devised H.B. 2340 after efforts to persuade the Forest Service to apply the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to the Salt River herd failed.
Townsend's proposal protects the horses from public harassment. But it does not ensure the horses' won't be rounded up because the horses live on federal land.
The law empowers the state to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, as well as a nonprofit group such as the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, to work out a plan for addressing issues such as population control, humane euthanasia, or simply keeping the horses off major highways.
"We don't need to be micromanaging the horses," Townsend said. "They've been out there since before we were a state. They pretty much manage themselves. But I'd like to see a memorandum of understanding so that when a situation arises, we can work together to address it."
The state has a year to settle things with the federal government.
"Clearly, the horses are not out of the woods yet," said Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. She's optimistic, however, that the Forest Service will sign on.
She led the small crowd of horse lovers that gathered outside the capitol in a fist-pumping "Yeeeeeeeeeesssss!"
"It was so close. They did almost fade away into history like thousands and thousands of other wild horses in the state of Arizona," she said, noting that the state's wild horse population has dropped from more than half a million to about 500. "We are beyond grateful that the horses get to stay. Thank you so much."
Several Salt River Wild Horse Management Group volunteers wiped away tears as they processed the news.
The bill signing had special meaning for Keith Cutler, a 54-year-old retired soldier who lives in San Tan. He enjoyed going to see the horses, which often graze in the Butcher Jones Recreation Area, with his father, who died Sunday. He and his father participated in several rallies advocating for the horses.
"It means a lot to me to know they are safe, because I know it meant a lot to him," Cutler said.
Tammy Richy, 54, of Sun Lakes, said watching foals frolicking is her favorite way to de-stress after a long week.
"They're very caring, loving animals," Richy said. "If there are a lot of people around, the stallion will place himself so as to protect the mares and babies. When they're in the river, the bigger horses will shield the weaker ones from the current."
For Ron Robertson, a 56-year-old computer consultant who lives in Tempe, the word "happy" pretty much summed up the day.
"This is a great step in a great direction," he said. "Hopefully it's enough."
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Click the link to read Elizabeth Stuart's March 16, 2016, New Times story about Simone Netherlands and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group.