Arizona Senate Approves Proposal to Protect Free-Roaming Salt River Horses

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

The Arizona Senate approved a bill Monday that would make it a state crime to take, harass, kill, or otherwise interfere with a herd of horses that runs free along the Salt River.

The bill passed 27-2, with one senator not voting.

House Bill 2340 already prevailed in the House of Representatives; however, over the course of its contentious run through the Legislature (detailed in the New Times cover story “Unbridled”), its sponsor Representative Kelly Townsend gutted and reworked the proposal. The House must now approve the changes before the bill heads to the governor's desk. 

The bill, if successful, would require people to obtain written permission from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office or the U.S. Forest Service before taking any action that affects the horses, such as providing medical care for or euthanizing an injured animal.

Townsend originally sought to give jurisdiction of the popular herd of horses to the Arizona Department of Agriculture, but she abandoned the effort after learning it would cost the agency $800,000 annually.

The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group vocally opposed putting the horses under the Department of Agriculture's control, but it did an enthusiastic about face when Townsend (R-Mesa) announced her amendments.

On Monday, about a dozen people wearing Salt River Wild Horse Management T-shirts lined the front of the senate gallery in support of the bill.

Simone Netherlands, the nonprofit’s president, held hands with Townsend, nervously, as they watched the votes register on a large screen above the gallery.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Yes …

When the final tally came in, the group clapped and whooped in excitement — until Senate President Andy Biggs leaned into the microphone to shush them.

“We don’t allow cheering in the gallery,” he said.

Rebuked but unable to contain themselves, several people raised her hands above their heads and, fingers spread, waved them back and forth in silent celebration.

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

Townsend crafted the bill in response to the U.S. Forest Service’s attempt last summer to round up the horses and auction them off.

While wild horses are protected from such harassment under federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the government contends the horses that make their home on the Salt River are not truly wild, but rather escaped livestock that’s turned feral.

The agency sought to evict the horses because, it said, they were a public-safety threat. Their territory, crisscrossed by highways, overlaps with several popular campgrounds and picnic areas, such as Butcher Jones Recreation Site.

Horse lovers from around the world, rallied by Townsend and The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, flooded the Forest Service with tens of thousands of phone calls and e-mails pleading with officials to let the horses stay.

In December, the government agreed to back off plans for the roundup. However, the horses still aren’t officially designated as “wild” under federal law and aren’t, therefore, shielded against a future roundup.

As they made their way out of the gallery, horse advocates hugged and congratulated one another.

“I’m thrilled and thankful,” said Lori Walker, a member of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group who has been photographing the herd for more than three years. “The only thing I could think of this past year was the Salt River Wild Horses, whether we were doing enough to save them, whether they were going to be OK.”

Netherlands, who expressed confidence that the bill would sail back through the House, called the statute “history making.”

“We are preserving something truly beautiful and unique for future generations,” she said.

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

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