On Wednesday, Dotty the wild mare was running footloose and fancy free along the Salt River. Thursday, a kayaker found her dead, floating with the current.
The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, which has been tracking her herd for the past 17 years, declared the death suspicious Monday, noting that Dotty had been shot three times in the head and once in the shoulder.
Dotty, a spirited redhead with a white stripe on her forehead, is the fourth horse to be shot in the past two years, said Simone Netherlands, president of the nonprofit. Last year, a horse was shot and killed in approximately the same area where Dotty's body was discovered. Netherlands called it “a very obvious act of cruelty.” Two other horses survived gunshot wounds.
“The investigation is still ongoing, but it is very disturbing that there may be someone out there with cruel intent,” she said. “We are committed to finding out what happened to Dotty.”
In what sounds like a ridiculous statement, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office said there is no evidence that the horse was maliciously shot. The MCSO representative even suggested that the death of Dotty, apparently healthy, may have been a mercy killing.
It is illegal to kill – or even capture, brand, or harass – a wild horse under federal law. But whether Dotty and the rest of her family qualify for protection is hotly contested.
According to the Tonto National Forest Service, which owns the land where the herd of 100 or so lives, the Salt River horses are descended from livestock that strayed from the nearby Salt River and Fort McDowell reservations.
Netherlands argues, however, that the wild beasts trace their lineage back to the 17th century, when Spanish missionaries brought the first horses to the area.
The conflict reached fever pitch in August, when the Forest Service announced plans to round up the horses and auction them off, and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group sued to block it. Public outcry was so deafening that the agency agreed to back off temporarily.
Dotty's death highlights the confusion surrounding the horses' management.
Ordinarily, the federal government monitors wild horses, tending toward population control. But because the Salt River horses are not officially designated as "wild" under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the forest service is not authorized to care for them, said Chandler Mundy, a range land management specialist with the Tonto National Forest.
To include the horses among the forest service's wards would require an act of Congress, he said.
As it stands, Mundy said, there's a lot of interagency jockeying between the Forest Service, the Arizona Department of Agriculture, and the Sheriff's Office, and “nobody is quite sure what to do” when a call about a horse comes in. In July, officials took so long to respond to reports of an injury that a member of the public took a horse home to “doctor it.” The Forest Service authorized the move, but when the state found out, officials were furious.
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“If anybody transports a horse or cow that isn't theirs, it's considered rustling, which is illegal under state law,” Mundy said. “There are a bunch of conflicting laws that are in effect here that make the whole situation problematic.”
Netherlands and her attorneys, however, have scoured the Wild Horse and Burro Act top to bottom and haven't found a paragraph prohibiting the Forest Service from stepping in, she said.
“These horses are on Forest Service land and, therefore, it is their responsibility to manage them,” she said. “It is not the Department of Agriculture's responsibility. It is not the sheriff's responsibility. It is their responsibility, and we want them to take it.”
Correction: A previous version of his article misstated the role of the Bureau of Land Management in tending to the nation's wild horses. It has been modified.