Controversial Proposal to Protect Salt River Wild Horses Moves Forward

A free-roaming mare plays with her one-day-old foal near the Salt River in Arizona.
A free-roaming mare plays with her one-day-old foal near the Salt River in Arizona.
Elizabeth Stuart

A controversial proposal to give the Arizona Department of Agriculture authority over a herd of horses that runs free along the Salt River will be debated on the Legislature floor, it was decided today.

The Federalism and States' Rights Committee voted 5-2 to move House Bill 2340 on to the next step — consideration by the full House of Representatives — after more than an hour of debate.

The bill is State Representative Kelly Townsend's solution to a months-long tussle over the horses' management that began in August when the U.S. Forest Service announced it intended to round them up and auction them off. In response to fervent public outcry (to the tune, officials report, of 60,000 or so e-mails from all over the world), the Forest Service has since abandoned the plan. However, the agency still maintains it does not have authority to manage the horses so their future remains uncertain.

Across the country, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are mandated to regulate wild horses under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which makes it illegal to harass or kill them. But the federal government has not officially recognized the Salt River herd as "wild," so its' members are considered feral livestock and, therefore, unprotected.

Townsend (R-Mesa) argued state management was the best way forward because, she said, it would "take an act of Congress" to add the Salt River horses to the federal government's roll.

"I cannot write a law at the federal level," she said. "I cannot add these horses to the [Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros] Act."

The bill's opponents, most notably the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking the herd for more than 17 years and voluntarily helping with management for nearly 4, vehemently rejected Townsend's assertion that a federal solution would require legislation, contending that the Forest Service is authorized to care for the herd under another law, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960.

The group had been negotiating the point with the Forest Service, but talks were put on hold after Townsend introduced H.B. 2340, Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, testified at the committee hearing.

She urged legislators, instead, to pass a resolution pressuring the federal government to take over the horses' management, which the group estimates could cost between $400,000 and $500,000 annually.

"It is their responsibility," she said. "Why would we shift that responsibility to the Arizona taxpayers? This is not going to cost nothing."

Netherlands specifically expressed concern about giving the Arizona Department of Agriculture authority over the herd, arguing that the horses would be treated as livestock — and not wild animals.

The bill makes it a crime for the general public to take or kill one of the horses, but it does not prohibit the Department of Agriculture from rounding the horses up for sterilization, immunization, or slaughter. It also does not stipulate that the horses be allowed to stay on their current stomping grounds.

"We want the horses managed with minimal human interference in a way that maintains natural herd dynamics," she said.

Several dozen people attended the meeting to opine on the bill. Some expressed solidarity with Netherlands and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, others took the pulpit to thank Townsend for proactively moving to protect the herd.

Controversial Proposal to Protect Salt River Wild Horses Moves Forward (2)
Elizabeth Stuart

As they explained their votes, State Representative Mark Finchem and State Representative Bob Thorpe, who both voiced support for bill, took issue with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group's philosophy on herd management.

Finchem argued that it would be necessary to round the horses up to test them for diseases that could potentially spread to humans. Thorpe suggested the state would need to approach the horses' management in the same way it had approached other "feral animals," such as cats and dogs, by "spaying and neutering and putting chips in them."

They, along with most of the legislators who sided with Townsend, noted that the proposal was a "work in progress." 

State Representative Bruce Wheeler (D-Tucson) told Townsend he shared "many of the concerns" voiced during the meeting, but felt compelled to give her a chance.

"I wasn't going to back this," he said, "but I want to give you an opportunity to see what you can do on the floor."

After the vote was tallied, a few people in the packed room wiped away tears.

Townsend committed to do her best for the horses.

"If at any time this bill comes into a snag that makes me uncomfortable ... we'll kill it — you can have my word on that," she said. "I do think, however, that we are going in the right direction." 


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