A federal judge declined to issue an emergency order restraining the Tonto National Forest Service from ousting a famous herd of wild horses from its home along the Salt River in Mesa.
While U.S. Forest Service officials originally announced plans to begin rounding up the horses Friday, in response to aggressive public pushback, the agency agreed not to make a move until September.
With the immediate threat lifted, the judge instructed the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, a nonprofit that monitors the herd, to deliver the lawsuit to the Forest Service and give them a chance to respond. A hearing is scheduled for August 12.
“There’s no need to panic at this point,” said William Miller, a Scottsdale attorney who is representing the horse advocates. “The game hasn’t even begun.”
The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group is suing the Forest Service for violating the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which declares wild horses vital to the “natural system” of public lands and mandates they be protected from “capture, branding, harassment, or death.”
The group also alleges the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 because they did not conduct an environment assessment or impact study prior to ordering the horses removal.
“It would be a historic and colossal mistake if the Forest Service would go through with these cruel, cruel plans,” said Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group.
Chandler Mundy, a forest range-land management specialist with the Tonto National Forest Service, said the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 does not apply to the Salt River herd because they are not recognized by the federal government as “wild.” When the Bureau of Land Management conducted a survey of wild horses after the act was passed, officials noted that some of the horses in the herd were branded, suggesting they were livestock that had wandered away from owners. Others were claimed by neighboring Native American tribes.
As a result, the Forest Service is not empowered to manage the horses, as it does other herds in the country, to make sure they co-exist happily with other animals, plants, and people. Recently, for example, the horses migrated to a popular recreation area filled with campers and motorists. With proper authorization, the agency might have hired a couple cowboys to push the herd to a less populated area, he said, “but our hands are tied.”
“Those horses don’t belong in a campground,” he said. “For their safety and the safety of the public.”
Mundy said the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, which has been monitoring the herd for 17 years, has contributed to the problem.
In July, the Forest Service discovered that the nonprofit was hauling in water troughs to entice the horses to move to a new location, he said. The area was home to the threatened desert tortoise.
“We can’t just let [members of the nonprofit] go in there willy-nilly and do whatever they want,” he said. “They aren’t taking into account any of the other resources we manage for. The only animal they are worried about is the horse.”
More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition opposing a roundup, inspiring a number of Arizona and U.S. lawmakers to intervene on the herd’s behalf.
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In a letter sent to Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth Wednesday, U.S. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain called on the agency to engage the public before taking action.
"Whether they are treated as feral under state law, or 'wild' under federal law, horses are a celebrated icon of the west," they wrote.
Governor Doug Ducey chimed in, too.
“The federal government should leave our wild horses alone,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “But if they don’t, Arizona will do everything we can to protect them, provide them sanctuary, and ensure they are treated humanely.”