The famous Salt River herd of wild horses could soon be no more if the government gets its way, and horse conservationists are furious.
The Tonto National Forest has placed a Friday (Aug. 7) deadline on letting people claim any stray horses from the wild herd. After that, Forest Service officials will round up the wild horses and remove them from the national forest land.
Advocates said wild horses have roamed the Arizona desert since Spanish Conquistadors brought missionaries to Arizona some 400 years ago. According to the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, there are 500 wild horses across the state, down from 500,000 some 100 years ago.
Depending on whom you ask, between 65 and 100 of those wild horses run free up and down the Salt River.
“This is probably the most popular wild horse herd in the country,” said Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. “People come from miles, nationally and internationally, to see this herd because they have learned to be peaceful and tolerant of people.
“We keep track of each and every horse,” she continued. “Each horse has a name.”
But Tonto National Forest rangers said the Salt River horses don’t belong there, and they’re planning to remove them.
“We’re very upset that the Forest Service has chosen not to work with us,” Ms. Netherlands said. “We’ve offered humane solutions [to manage the horse population] at no cost to the Forest Service.”
But the Forest Service contends that the wild horses are actually escaped livestock. Rangers also said they have no authority to manage the herd or contract with outside groups to manage the horses due to a federal law that created wild horse and burro management areas back in the 1970s. Tonto rangers said the Salt River horses were claimed by Native American groups in the ‘70s, and so the area was never designated for wild horses.
“These horses have come off of other people’s property over the years,” said Carrie Templin, a spokeswoman for the Tonto National Forest. “We are trying to return them to their rightful owners.”
Forest rangers also said the horses have become a safety concern in terms of traffic accidents and recreation.
“They are coming into one of the highest use recreational areas and we do not want a child or a dog or a horse to get hurt by somebody trying to go up and pet them,” Ms. Templin said.
The Forest Service has set a Friday deadline for people to claim their branded horses. After that, any unclaimed horses will be rounded up as strays and removed to be handed over to the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
“It’s so indicative, we believe, of mankind and our government to just say, ‘Let’s manage this into extinction,’” Ms. Netherlands said.
Representatives from the Tonto National Forest said, at this point, it would take an act of Congress to keep the horses where they are.
The wild horse advocate group is planning a protest for Friday. Is also has created a Change.org petition that had garnered nearly 10,000 signatures by late Monday night.
Editor’s note: Through partnership Independent Newspapers is publishing information provided by CBS 5 News. To read more and view videos of the horses, visit its website.
Tonto National Park’s almost 3 million acres overlap the far north-central boundary of Pinal County and western boundary of Maricopa County, according to a map on the park’s website.
Jason Volentine writes for CBS 5 News