“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.
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.