One horse rests in the shade, August 4, 2015 (photo: Stacey Davis)
A federal judge has approved the dismissal of a lawsuit to protect the Salt River horses from a roundup by the U.S. Forest Service.
Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, said Tuesday that her group made a “strategic decision” to drop the suit after the Forest Service said it would seek to dismiss the case.
Since the Forest Service has no plan right now to move the horses, Netherlands said, there’s no basis for her group’s suit.
“Should the Forest Service make the wrong decision (on the horses), we will refile immediately,” Netherlands said in a phone interview from Prescott.
But she added: “We feel like their outlook has changed from definite roundup and removal to now being willing to look at all the options.”
Forest Service spokeswoman Carrie Templin said the agency is still meeting with stakeholders to find alternatives.
“We’re still trying to find a solution,” Templin said.
Back in August, the Forest Service was forced to back down from its plan to remove the herd of about 65 to 100 horses from their habitat along the Salt River near Saguaro Lake.
Hundreds of people protested the planned removal during an August rally at Saguaro Lake. Several top elected officials, including Gov. Doug Ducey and U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, also stepped in to block the move.
In the wake of the protests, Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth postponed any decision on the horses’ fate for at least 120 days, about mid-December.
In a sworn statement Monday that was filed with the court, Bosworth said: “Presently, the Forest Service has not formulated a plan for addressing the stray horses.”
But Bosworth also reiterated the Forest Service’s rationale for wanting to remove the horses:
–He said the horses “are not ‘wild horses'” under federal law, and he denied that a wild horse territory was ever created in the National Forest.
–He maintained that the horses are a safety risk in their Salt River habitat. The risk was heightened this year, Bosworth said, by private citizens placing water, salt and feed in the forest’s high-traffic areas.
Environmentalists have also called for the horses’ removal. They say the horses are ravaging the river habitat for several species of birds.
PREVIOUSLY: Audubon Society wants horses removed
Netherlands said the lawsuit was getting in the way of negotiations with the Forest Service and others.
“Negotiations are somewhat difficult when there is a lawsuit involved,” she said. “It’s in much better faith when you can talk openly and things aren’t going to be held against you in court.”
“it’s going to take a while,” she said. “It’s a very long, arduous process.”
Netherlands says her group is offering a plan for “humane birth control” that would limit the herd.
The horses have been at the center of a social media firestorm since plans to remove them were made public this summer.