An Arizona nonprofit dedicated to protecting a herd of horses that runs free along the Salt River has dropped a lawsuit that aimed to block the U.S. Forest Service from rounding up and auctioning off the animals.
Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, said it was a “strategic move” to preserve the nonprofit’s right to sue in the future.
The Forest Service, which abandoned immediate plans to remove the horses from the Tonto National Forest in August, previously asked a judge to dismiss the case. If the court had come to agree, the nonprofit could have been prohibited from pursuing further legal action. Netherlands decided to back down voluntarily.
A lawsuit filed by international advocacy organization Friends of Animals that challenges the Forest Service's management of the herd is ongoing.
“If our horses are ever in danger again, we will be there to protect them,” Netherlands vowed.
The two parties still haven't reached an agreement about the herd's future on federal land — or even how long it'll be allowed to stay. However, the Forest Service has agreed to meet with horse advocates monthly to explore options.
“This is a good-faith effort to make negotiations easier,” Netherlands said. “If we get the attorneys out of it, people can speak freely without worrying that what they say will be held against them in court. Maybe we can make the process a little less painful.”
The crux of the conflict is the herd’s origin. While Netherlands argues the horses are the descended from steeds brought over by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s, Forest Service officials say they are stray livestock from a nearby Native American Reservation.
The distinction is crucial because if the government hasn’t officially deemed the beasts wild, they are not protected under a federal law that prohibits people from harassing, capturing, or killing them. The Forest Service says, without an official designation, it is prevented from properly managing the horses, making the herd a hazard to the environment and to the people who visit public campgrounds.
Netherlands is pushing the agency to build a public-private partnership with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. The nonprofit already is working with the Maricopa County Department of Transportation to improve traffic safety in horse land by installing motion detectors that would set off a warning light when large animals near a road, she said. Volunteers are trained and ready to implement a non-surgical, non-hormonal birth-control program that would keep the herd’s growth in check.
“We’re saying: let us help you with this,” she said. “We have the people. We have the expertise. We have the will. We even have the money.”
Carrie Templin, spokeswoman for the regional division of the Forest Service, declined to comment on the idea of a public-private partnership. However, she said, the agency has “always been open to trying to find a solution.”
"Nothing has really changed for us," she said.
Despite the uncertainty of the situation, horse lovers, who turned out in force to fight for the Salt River herd, took Netherlands' decision to drop the suit as a good sign.
“I am cautiously hopeful that the storm has passed,” Dolan Ellis, a singer-songwriter who lives in Scottsdale, wrote on the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group’s Facebook page.
Virginia Tout, an animal-rights activist from Stockton, California, congratulated Netherlands on “winning this round.”
“So glad the lawsuit can be refiled if need be,” she wrote.
Cheryl DeLagrange, a nurse who lives in Covington, Louisiana, observed: “Definitely a step in the right direction.”