Arizona Legislature Votes to Protect Salt River Horses

A Salt River horse near Mesa's Coon Bluff campground.
A Salt River horse near Mesa's Coon Bluff campground.
Andrew Pielage

As of Thursday, all that’s standing between Arizona’s beloved Salt River horses and state protection is the governor’s signature.

After months of negotiation, the House of Representatives voted 53 to 3 (with 4 representatives not voting) to pass an amended version of House Bill 2340, which makes it illegal to take, harass, kill, or otherwise interfere with the herd of approximately 100 free-roaming horses that makes its home in the Tonto National Forest just outside Mesa.

The House initially approved the bill months ago. But, following protests from horse advocates, sponsor Representative Kelly Townsend reworked it in the Senate. It then had to return to the House for a final thumbs up.

“We are ecstatic that this is finally happening after all the fights and waiting,” said Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, a nonprofit that has been fighting for the herd’s protection for years. “This is a victory not just for the horses, but also for the public of Arizona, who would not stand by and watch them kicked off their land.”

Townsend drew up HB 2340 hoping not only to shield the horses from harassment but also to clarify who’s responsible for their oversight.

Wild horses, which are protected under the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, are generally managed by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.

The U.S. Forest Service argues, however, that the Salt River horses are not actually wild — but rather livestock that have been turned out by their owners. Therefore, the agency maintains, it has no jurisdiction and cannot regulate population, provide medical care, or even clean up a horse carcass in a public space.

Last summer, complaining that the horses, tramping unfettered through campgrounds and across roads, had become a safety hazard, the Forest Service announced plans to round up the horses and auction them off.

The government abandoned the plan in December after outraged horse lovers from across the globe flooded the Forest Service with tens of thousands of phone calls and e-mails. (To read more about how they were saved, see the New Times story “Unbridled.”)

Still, the horses remained unprotected and unmanaged. 

Salt River horses near Mesa's Coon Bluff campground.
Salt River horses near Mesa's Coon Bluff campground.
Andrew Pielage

The first draft of HB 2340 gave stewardship of the horses to the Arizona Department of Agriculture. But it would have cost the state $800,000 per year to care for the horses, and horse advocates worried the department would treat the herd like livestock.

Townsend decided, instead, to empower the state to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Forest Service outlining a management plan. Under the proposal, the state can then enter into an agreement with a private entity to take on the horses’ care. Groups or individuals wishing to help the Salt River horses would be required to obtain written permission from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office or the Forest Service before taking any action.

The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, with informal authorization from federal and state officials, has already begun over the past several years to take on the basic management of the horses, such as euthanizing sick animals and repairing broken fences to keep the animals off highways. Just this past Sunday, the group rescued an injured foal that had been abandoned by its band.

If the state contracts with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group to continue to manage the horses after HB 2340 goes into effect, the nonprofit will be responsible for shouldering the costs, which Netherlands estimates will be about $100,000 annually.

Although HB 2340 doesn’t expressly prohibit the Forest Service from evicting the horses (only the federal government has the power to do that), Netherlands said she “trusts everyone has humane intentions at this point.”

As the bill has worked its way through the Legislature, she said, cooperation between her nonprofit and federal and state agencies has improved.

“We’re feeling really grateful and really optimistic,” she said.  

Salt River horses near Mesa's Coon Bluff campground.
Salt River horses near Mesa's Coon Bluff campground.
Andrew Pielage

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