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Arizona Proposal to Protect Salt River Wild Horses Sparks Controversy

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The U.S. Forest Service recently backed off plans to round up and auction off a popular herd of horses that runs free along the Salt River following months of fervent public protest. But the horses' future remains uncertain because the issue that prompted the removal order remains: The herd doesn't qualify for protection from the federal government.

Hoping to remedy the problem, state Representative Kelly Townsend has proposed a bill that would transfer ownership of the herd to the state.

If approved, House Bill 2340 would make it a class 1 misdemeanor to “actively manage, take, slaughter, or euthanize” any of the Salt River horses.

“These horses are beloved by so many folks,” said Townsend, chair of the Federalism and States' Rights Committee. “This is the best we can do as a state to try to protect them.”

Townsend's bill gives responsibility for managing the herd, which could include birth control and euthanization, to the Arizona Department of Agriculture, but it stipulates that the agency may collaborate with the Forest Service or delegate the work to a private contractor.

When the Forest Service announced the roundup in August, officials expressed concern that the horses were intruding on campgrounds and roads, causing safety issues. The Forest Service was not authorized to herd the horses away from problem areas, however, because they are not officially designated as “wild” under the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Instead, officials argued, the horses were feral livestock.

“No one was taking jurisdiction over the horses,” Townsend said. “The Forest Service, the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the Arizona Game and Fish Department — nobody wanted to take responsibility.”

The problem, she said, is perhaps best illustrated by the death of Dotty the mare. Dotty, a spirited redhead with a white stripe on her forehead, was shot and killed in October. But although horse supporters have offered $8,000 in reward money for tips leading to the identification of her killer, Townsend said, her headless, rotting body still remains splayed across a hiking trail.

Townsend, with the help of her two teenage children, put down reinforcing bars, wrapped orange fencing around the horse carcass, and erected “Keep Out” signs, in an attempt to shield the public from the gruesome sight and “give Dotty some dignity,” she said.

“This is not a problem for me and my teenagers to take care of,” she said. “She ought to have been removed.”

The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, the nonprofit that has been voluntarily looking after the herd for the last 17 years, denounced the bill in a statement released today.

The group's president, Simone Netherlands, said she appreciates “any attempts to protect the horses,” but expressed concern that HB 2340 fails to lay out a plan for funding the horses' care.

Townsend acknowledged that the funding issue was a hurdle but said she didn't want to compromise support for the proposal among legislators.

“We are in crisis mode right now,” she said. “We need the bill to pass so the horses will be protected.”

She suggested that the state could find a corporate sponsor to foot the bill or contract with a nonprofit organization, such as the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, to collect donations from the herd's supporters.

Netherlands, however, argued that “even if there is partnership with our nonprofit organization, the state will incur significant costs.”

Netherlands also took issue with the fact that while Townsend's bill protects the horses from abuse from the general public, it does not prohibit the state from gelding and spaying the horses or rounding them up for removal or slaughter.

“It fails to protect the horses in their historic habitat or designate a protected habitat for them,” she said

Netherlands said she believes the responsibility to manage the horses rests with the Forest Service. Giving the state jurisdiction over a herd of horses that resides on federal land, she argued, would raise “logistical challenges” that Townsend's bill doesn't address.

Forest Service officials, though, have said it would take an act of Congress to authorize them to care for the horses.

“I don't see that happening anytime soon,” Townsend said.

She described HB 2340 as just the “initial step” toward a solution.

“We don't want to see the federal government round these horses up at their whim,” she said. “We want to see them stay.”

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