The Arizona Senate Federalism and States' Rights Committee voted unanimously today to move forward a proposal to make it illegal to take, harass, kill, or otherwise interfere with a herd of horses that runs free along the Salt River.
House Bill 2340, which already has passed in the House of Representatives, will now go to the Senate floor.
The room, packed full of dozens of horse enthusiasts, erupted in cheers when the results were tallied.
The reception from horse advocates, led by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, was a complete turnaround from February 17, when State Representative Kelly Townsend introduced the bill.
H.B. 2340 originally gave authority for the horses' management to the Arizona Department of Agriculture. But Townsend (R-Mesa) gutted it after learning it would cost the agency $800,000, she said.
Now the bill simply requires 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 euthanizing an injured animal or rescuing an abandoned foal.
Townsend presented the bill as a solution to a months-long debate over who's responsible for the horses.
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service manage most of the country's wild horses, which are protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. However, the Salt River herd has not been officially designated as wild — so federal officials maintain they do not have the legal authority to step in.
The non-profit Salt River Wild Horse Management Group has been voluntarily caring for the herd for several years by euthanizing fatally injured animals and providing water and medical care. But, Townsend said, the arrangement has caused friction with the Forest Service, contributing to its decision in July to issue an order to round up the horses and auction them off (In response to public outrage, the Forest Service has since rescinded the order).
H.B. 2340, as currently written, would ensure the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, or other groups like it, work in tandem with government officials, Townsend said.
"This creates jurisdiction so we can move on," Townsend said.
By granting decision-making power to the Sheriff's Office, along with the Forest Service, Townsend said she hoped to shield the horses should the federal government try to round them up again.
"These are Arizona's resource," she said. "I don't think it's right for the federal government to come in and take them."
The Wild Horse Management Group's president, Simone Netherlands, who vocally opposed Townsend's proposal to give responsibility for the horses to the Department of Agriculture — arguing that the agency would compromise the herd's wild nature by gelding horses or by rounding up animals to give them vaccines — wholeheartedly embraced the new version.
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Monday, in anticipation of the committee hearing, Netherlands and volunteers, waving American and Arizona flags, stood atop a hill in the middle of the herd's territory from sunup to sundown to demonstrate their support for the bill.
Representatives from The Human Society of the United States and the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign also expressed support.
Netherlands called the bill a "common-sense" solution.
"We know and love each horse personally, so we were extremely upset and outraged when the Forest Service announced plans to round them up," she said. "We are very, very thankful to Representative Kelly Townsend for taking the initiative to write the bill."