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The uncertain fate of the Salt River horses

The uncertain fate of the Salt River horses

On a sweltering afternoon, Simone Netherlands stood on the rocky shore of the Salt River. A tall woman with blonde hair, she wore a T-shirt that said: PROTECT AND RESPECT WILD HORSES AND BURROS.

She was very familiar with this stretch of the Salt River, at the Coon Bluff recreation site in the Tonto National Forest near the outskirts of the Phoenix metro area. The landscape resembled a Western movie set – the river, cacti, brush, beige-pink soaring cliffs and, for those lucky enough to visit the place at the right time, approximately 100 free-roaming horses that rely on the river for water and forage.

To Netherlands, they’re beloved. She calls them the Salt River Wild Horses, and spent much of the last year battling authorities and environmentalists who wanted the horses removed from the land.

Netherlands is a leader of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, which has monitored the herd for years. She said removing the horses from the land would destroy the herd—a herd she said is a living link to the historic Wild West.

She said removing the herd could result in the purchase of some of the horses by “kill buyers,” who would sell the animals to Mexican slaughterhouses.

“Whenever there are wild horses for cheap, kill buyers are there and they stuff them in their trucks and drive them to Mexico,” she said. “Who else but a kill buyer would want a truckload of wild horses that are not tamed?”

In October 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reported that a Colorado rancher, who bought 1,700 wild horses from the Bureau of Land Management

Wild Horse and Burro Program and resold them to kill buyers who sent the horses to Mexican slaughterhouses.

“It is absolutely our worst nightmare,” Netherlands said. “It is so awful to think about.”

She has rescued horses for years, she said. When she was 10, she took horse-training lessons at a military base in Holland. If the horses misbehaved, the instructors would tell their pupils to whip the horses after the lessons, she said. She realized she didn’t need to be cruel to the animals in order to work with them, and that compassionate, patient training was the route that horses would respond to. When she was 20, she started humane horse training, she said, and she now runs a horse-rescue organization, Respect 4 Horses, and has a sanctuary in Prescott where several rescue horses reside.

“I used to myself purchase horses from the kill buyer that lived close to me and I would retrain them and adopt them out for free,” she said.

About 12 years ago, she began to devote much of her time to what is now the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. Netherlands helped document and monitor the herd with others who were also interested in the animals, like photographers along the banks. She said the group studies the horses and advocates for their safety. Netherlands blamed humans, not horses, for causing the most ecological damage to the river, saying damage from the horses is minimal. She noted pollution from littering, old barbed-wire fencing and even the controlled flow of the river in the winter are factors that damage the river’s ecology.

Because of their closeness to the city, the Salt River horses are well-known and controversial. The horses have tens of thousands of fans on Facebook. They often stand quietly in the river while tourists, just a few feet away, snap photos with their phones.

One winter afternoon, three horses grazed in the river next to two cattle. They were protected by tangles of cattails and thorny bushes on the bank. Down the road, a band of six horses had gathered underneath a mesquite tree at a picnic area that was closed for repair work. A colt clung to its mother’s side. Its face was adorned with a white stripe, just like the mare’s. A filly with a caramel-colored coat pranced around playfully and was not afraid to break away from the others—though she never strayed too far away from her family. After about 20 minutes, the horses finished grazing and walked toward a brush-laden mountain.

The presence of the horses on the river has fired up disputes between public agencies, conservationists and animal advocates. For nearly a year, the animals have been the subject of protest marches, letter campaigns, visits to Arizona’s congressional delegation in Washington, two federal lawsuits, and two proposed laws in the Arizona Legislature.

But today, the fate of the horses remains undecided.

Protected or vulnerable?

In 1971, Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which required the “protection, management and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros on public lands.” The law required a survey of federal lands, to see where the wild free-roaming horses in need of protection might be. In 1973, the Tonto National Forest was surveyed.

Carrie Templin, the public information officer for the Tonto National Forest, said the results showed there were no wild horses as defined by the act— she said the surveyors only observed horses with brands, or ones claimed by the two neighboring reservations. As a result, wild horse territory was not designated on the Tonto National Forest, which meant the horses were unprotected.

Templin said any horse introduced onto the land on or after December 1971 were considered unauthorized livestock, to be handled by the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

“The Forest Service will continue to engage with the local community, state and federal officials to explore potential alternatives for meeting our obligations for both land stewardship and public safety,” the Tonto National Forest Supervisor, Neil Bosworth, said in a statement.

“I can say the Forest Service manages and puts limits on grazing for cows because of the fact that you can’t have unlimited numbers of any animal without some ecological damage,” Templin said.

Templin said cattle are no longer authorized to graze in the portion of the Tonto National Forest where the horses are sometimes seen.

“If you saw cattle in the area where there are horses – either the horses were on the [Native American] reservation side of the river, or cattle have crossed onto the Forest from either the reservation or adjoining state or private land,” she said.

“We’ve got concentrations of lots of people and lots of horses in the same vicinity,” she said. “It has the potential to be a bad thing. You’ve got kids and you’ve got dogs; and you don’t know how the people are going to act and you don’t know how the horses are going to act.”

A threat to native species?

Some environmental groups say the horses pose threats to native species. Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Audubon Society believe the horses are causing damage to the Salt River ecosystem.

Tice Supplee is the interim executive director and director of bird conservation for Audubon Arizona. As she walked in the forest close to the Coon Bluff area, she stopped frequently to view the treetops with her binoculars, her dog by her side. She used her phone to check the different birds she saw off her list.

“Horses have been along this river corridor for many decades,” she said. “It’s built up to be a bigger issue now because it seems that the [horse] population is increasing. The factors that are contributing to that increase are somewhat unclear. There’s speculation that during the economic downturn, people let their horses loose out here because they couldn’t afford them.”

Photo by: Willow Greene

Supplee said with the absence of a natural predator, the horse numbers will continue to increase, eventually leading to a lack of food resources.

“This desert, and its plant ecology, did not evolve with a major plant-eating animal like a horse,” she said. “There’s a big factor here around human psychology and perception. We have romanticized the West -- the horses are considered a tradition of Western European settlement.”

Supplee said the National Audubon Society chapters have expressed concern about the vegetative damage the horses can cause, as she motioned her hand outward across the landscape.

“If you look around, you won’t see much,” she said. “When they can’t find their preferred food, they go for secondary food. They will strip the bark from trees— the tree that’s most impacted by horses and also burros is our native paloverde. They’ll strip the bark, they’ll break off the branches.”

The plentiful mesquite trees in the area aren’t as vulnerable, she said, but the main concern is that the horses consume the underbrush habitat beneath the trees. Along with this, Supplee said the horses will graze through the young seedlings of cottonwood and willow trees that sprout, and as the herd population increases, it becomes difficult to have enough mature vegetation.

“The idea being someday, these trees would be large enough for our bald eagles to nest in,” she said. “So we’re trying to recover this ecosystem.”

She said the Forest Service took cattle off of the land for that purpose -- if cattle grazing occurs at all, she said, it’s highly regulated, and on the river corridors where it is still allowed, it’s seasonal. She said because they are managed, cattle can be removed when young trees are starting to grow.

“Now we have horses kind of replacing the cattle as a stress,” she said. “They’re here 24/7. The frustration for the Audubon Society is that we’ve been really successful working with ranchers and implementing management practices for cattle grazing. The horses are going to have an unequal impact on this ecological system.”

But according to the Sierra Club, not enough research has been done on the horses in general, much less enough to justify removing them.

“We have asked the Forest Service to do an environmental assessment on this, to evaluate impacts, and present a range of alternatives,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s

Grand Canyon chapter.

As reported, but as yet undocumented, the horses’ population increase has other environmental groups concerned as well. Robin Silver, a co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, described the horses as “feral,” and said in an email they’re present in excessive numbers and are harming the area.

“They have no predators,” Silver said in the email. “At the very least, their numbers need to be

reduced, and then subsequently, their numbers will need to be carefully controlled. (They are)

overgrazing, no different than the cows that were previously damaging the area but that have

been removed from the area.”

Is horse tourism profitable?

Many tourists and horse advocates see the Salt River horses as living symbols of the American West.

At the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, which is near where the horses roam, a manager who identified himself only as “John” said he has received calls asking about the horses from all over the world. Tourists who want to see the horses sometimes stay at the ranch.

“I think there’s universal attraction to wild horses. You wouldn't find the same draw for a herd of wild cows,” he said.

While anecdotal evidence points to the horses as a tourist draw, it’s not possible to accurately assess how many dollars they might bring into the local economy. And the Forest Service does not track how many visitors paying $8 passes or $4 watercraft fees are actually visiting to see the horses.

Risk to public safety?

In July 2015, the Forest Service announced it might impound the horses. Two animal advocacy groups almost immediately filed separate federal lawsuits in Phoenix seeking to prevent the agency from impounding the horses - the first step in removing them from the Salt River landscape.

Netherlands and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group alleged in court the Forest Service violated three key federal laws in its attempt to impound the horses. The laws are the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (it protects some wild horses on federal lands), the National Environmental Policy Act, (it requires environmental assessments before taking some action on federal lands) and the Administrative Procedure Act (it establishes the way that federal agencies can establish regulations).

“Taking steps to remove all the horses from the Tonto National Forest without first conducting a full investigation, study, consultation with scientists and biologists, and without any management or inventory of the horses for decades is ‘arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law” the complaint said.

Another group, Friends of Animals, an international non-profit animal advocacy organization, contended in a separate complaint the Forest Service also violated the three federal laws when it issued its notice to impound the horses. The complaint alleged that the Forest Service had actually admitted wild horses were in the area since the 1930s, a key point that would allow them protection under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

“Essentially, the federal government has an obligation to consider alternatives to its proposed action, to analyze the impacts,” Jennifer Barnes, an attorney for the organization, said in an email. “The Forest Service did not make this determination prior to issuing the Impound Notice authorizing the removal of wild horses from Tonto National Forest. We do believe these horses are wild under the Act and the Forest Service is currently taking the position that they are not.”

The two cases were consolidated into one. Netherlands’ group withdrew from the lawsuit in October 2015, but retains the power to refile the case.

Photo by: Willow Greene

The Forest Service, in its motion to dismiss the Friends of Animals case, contended it hadn’t decided what to do with the horses, and that it hadn’t violated any federal law. The agency stated in court papers between “65 and 100 stray horses are currently found in and around the Tonto,” and that the numbers “have expanded recently” and “pose a risk to public safety and conflict with users of the Forest.” The agency alleged 30 “incidents” in less than three years involving the horses, including four horse-vehicle collisions.

The agency contended in court papers that the horses were a danger to humans and were not protected under the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The agency submitted to the court a 1974 document that indicated Forest Service officials did not find wild horses in the Tonto National Forest, but instead found branded free-roaming horses that belonged to nearby Native American communities.

But on December 10, 2015, the Forest Service announced it would no longer plan to impound the Salt River horses.

Days later, Friends of Animals voluntarily dismissed its federal lawsuit.


After the court fights ended, advocates like Netherlands vowed to collaborate with the Forest Service in designing a plan for managing the horses.

Then Kelly Townsend, a Republican state representative and fan of the Salt River Horses, sponsored two bills that would entrust the horses to the state of Arizona.

The Salt River horses became a state rights issue.

Townsend did not believe the federal government had the authority to manage the horses.

One of her bills, HB 2572, called for a committee of state experts to come up with a plan to manage the Salt River horses. The second measure, HB 2340, named the agriculture department as custodian of the animals.

Carrie Templin, the public information officer for the Tonto National Forest, said the agency is responsible for implementing legislation passed by the U.S. Congress and working with state agencies who are responsible for implementing their state legislation.

“It is not appropriate for us to speculate on the impact of pending legislation,” she said.

Michael Harris, the director of the Wildlife Law Program at Friends of Animals, the animal advocacy organization that had sued the Forest Service so it wouldn’t round up the horses, said state control of the horses is a bad idea.

“Many states want control over wild horses—Nevada and Wyoming, for example, have tried—so that they can remove them altogether from their lands. We don’t want to see that start to happen, regardless of the intent in Arizona,” Harris said.

Netherlands said at the time Townsend introduced the legislation that that the proposed legislation “makes it illegal for the public to take or kill a horse, but not for the (Agriculture) department to do the same,” she said. “It keeps the option of slaughter and removal open to the department. That puts us back at square one.”

The agriculture department, she noted, did “not understand nor value wild horses. Neither does the Forest Service, but at least we have an understanding with them. These bills make it possible for the horses to be rounded up, it paves the way for it.”

What followed was a bitter dispute between Netherlands and Townsend, followed by significant amendments to the bill that everyone said they could live with, Then a collaboration between Netherlands and Townsend led to the passage of both bills in the Arizona House and Senate, followed by more uncertainty.

An uncertain fate?

The fate of the horses is on the back burner because the Arizona Legislature is currently focused on budget negotiations.

HB 2572, calling for a horse study committee, has less impact on the fate of the horses than HB 2340, which still awaits a final read in the house. Of the two bills, HB 2340 offers the most protection to the horses, Netherlands and Townsend agree.

“There’s a moratorium on bills as we work on the budget,” Townsend said. “If this bill is forgotten, a whole lot of people will be very unhappy.”

“In its current form, we support it [HB 2340] 100 percent,” Netherlands said. “If this bill becomes law, the horses will no longer be ‘stray livestock.’ That’s so important. The Forest Service says the horses are stray livestock. So if they are stray livestock they would have to be rounded up. Once they’re not stray livestock anymore they will be humanely managed.”

The measure wouldn’t guarantee permanent protection for the horses, she said, but “it gets us a lot closer to permanent protection.”

But the budget has consumed lawmakers, Netherlands said.

“We’re very nervous HB 2340 will get stuck and might die before the Legislature adjourns,” she said. “We’re all a little bit scared about it.”

“Overall, I’ve learned from this whole story when you stand for something you just can’t give up despite the roadblocks,” she said. “We never gave up on the horses and we never will, either. Hopefully that will end up saving them.” 

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