Controversial Proposal to Protect Salt River Wild Horses Moves Forward

“I cannot add these horses to the [Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros] Act.”

A controversial proposal to give the Arizona Department of Agriculture authority over a herd of horses that runs free along the Salt River will be debated on the floor of the Legislature, it was decided today.

A free-roaming mare plays with her one-day-old foal near the Salt River in Arizona.  Photo by Elizabeth Stuart

A free-roaming mare plays with her one-day-old foal near the Salt River in Arizona.
Photo by Elizabeth Stuart

The Federalism and States’ Rights Committee voted 5-2 to move House Bill 2340 on to the next step — consideration by the full House of Representative — after more than an hour of debate.

The bill is State Representative Kelly Townsend’s solution to a months-long tussle over the horses’ management that began in August when the U.S. Forest Service announced it intended to round them up and auction them off. In response to fervent public outcry (to the tune, officials report, of 60,000 or so e-mails from all over the world), the Forest Service has since abandoned the plan. However, the agency still maintains it does not have authority to manage the horses and, therefore, their future remains uncertain.

Across the country, the Bureau of Land Management is responsible for regulating wild horses under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which makes it illegal to harass or kill them. But the BLM has not officially recognized the herd as “wild,” so its’ members are considered feral livestock and, therefore, unprotected.

Townsend (R-Mesa) argued state management was the best way forward because, she said, it would “take an act of Congress” to add the Salt River horses to the BLM’s roll.

“I cannot write a law at the federal level,” she said. “I cannot add these horses to the [Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros] Act.”

The bill’s opponents, most notably the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking the herd for more than 17 years and voluntarily helping with management for nearly 4, vehemently rejected Townsend’s assertion that a federal solution would require legislation, contending that the Forest Service is authorized to care for the herd under another law, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960.

The group had been negotiating the point with the Forest Service, but talks were put on hold after Townsend introduced H.B. 2340, Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, testified at the committee hearing.

She urged legislators, instead, to pass a resolution pressuring the federal government to take responsibility for the horses’ management, which the group estimates could cost between $400,000 and $500,000.

“It is their responsibility,” she said. “Why would we shift that responsibility to the Arizona taxpayers? This is not going to cost nothing.”

Netherlands specifically expressed concern about giving the Arizona Department of Agriculture authority over the herd, arguing that they would be treated as livestock — and not wild animals.

The bill makes it a crime for the general public to take or kill one of the horses, but it does not prohibit the Department of Agriculture from rounding the horses up for sterilization, immunizations, or slaughter. It does not stipulate that the horses be allowed to stay on their current stomping grounds.

“We want the horses managed with minimal human interference in a way that maintains natural herd dynamics,” she said.

Several dozen people attended the meeting to voice their opinion on the bill. Some expressed solidarity with Netherlands and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, others took the pulpit to thank Townsend for proactively moving to protect the herd.

As they explained their votes, State Representative Mark Finchem and State Representative Bob Thorpe, who both voiced support for bill, took issue with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group’s philosophy on herd management.

Finchem argued that it would be necessary to round the horses up to test them for diseases that could potentially spread to humans. Thorpe suggested the state would need to approach the horses’ management in the same way it had approached other “feral animals,” such as cats and dogs, by “spaying and neutering and putting chips in them.”

They, along with most of the legislators who sided with Townsend, noted that the proposal was a “work in progress.”

State Representative Bruce Wheeler (D-Tucson) told Townsend he shared “many of the concerns” voiced during the meeting, but felt compelled to give her a chance.

“I wasn’t going to back this,” he said, “but I want to give you an opportunity to see what you can do on the floor.”

After the vote was tallied, a few people in the packed room wiped away tears.

Townsend committed to do her best for the horses.

“If at any time this bill comes into a snag that makes me uncomfortable … we’ll kill it — you can have my word on that,” she said. “I do think, however, that we are going in the right direction.”

Arizona Lawmakers Want State Control of Salt River Wild Horses

by , The Republic |

“These horses belong to the land, they were here before us.”

Arizona would assert ownership of the controversial and wildly loved Salt River wild horse herd under a bill that advanced from a state House federalism and states’ rights committee on Wednesday.

A Salt River horse and foal graze at Butcher Jones Recreational Area in Tonto National Forest located near Mesa on Thursday, August 6, 2015.(Photo: Isaac Hale / The Republic)

A Salt River horse and foal graze at Butcher Jones Recreational Area in Tonto National Forest located near Mesa on Thursday, August 6, 2015.(Photo: Isaac Hale / The Republic)

The horses — 100 or so of them — attracted an outpouring of support from horse lovers last summer when the U.S. Forest Service announced it would round them up and sell them to protect the river and forest environment near Mesa. The protests included calls from Arizona’s congressional delegation, and federal land managers backed down.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, introduced House Bill 2340 to claim state ownership and the ability to manage the herd. She also filed a companion bill, House Bill 2572, to establish a committee to study the herd’s environmental effects. Both bills advanced in committee Wednesday.

“These horses belong to the land,” Townsend said. “They were here before us.”

Her intent is to ensure federal agents won’t remove the horses, she said, and that the state’s livestock experts can manage them. That would include vaccination and other veterinary care when needed, or population controls.

The horse lovers who packed the hearing room, though, mostly opposed the bills because they want to keep up the pressure on federal land managers to preserve the herd. They told the committee they fear that future state administrations could decide to eliminate the horses, and that there’s no guarantee that potential state sales of excess horses won’t go to those who intend to slaughter them.

They want federal recognition of the horses as a wild herd worthy of federal protections — something Townsend said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has rejected.

Some of the horse advocates argued passionately that they be left alone, even from roundups for vaccinations. Horse lover Richard Bernard, of Phoenix, said the horses are part of God’s creation and must be preserved.

“We will stand before our creator and we will give an account of what we did here with our public lands and resources,” he said. “We don’t need to demonize the horses.”

Environmentalists including the Maricopa Audubon Society have argued that the horses chew up willow shoots and other vegetation important to endangered native species, including the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

Technically the horses are in a legal blind spot, left unprotected under a 1971 federal horse management act because, at the time, they were considered feral bands instead of a long-established wild herd. Their removal by federal authorities could therefore be similar to removal of cattle illegally grazing on public lands, rather than managing them for a continuing presence.

Although horse supporters said they believed federal officials could be pressured to maintain the herd, Townsend said she wants to avoid federal roundups such as what the Bureau of Land Management conducts across the West. Those roundups frequently anger horse advocates who want the horses in the wild instead of at federal corrals.

Townsend amended the bill on Wednesday to provide for a safe migration corridor around the river.

The bill advanced on a 5-2 vote.