Enjoyed by millions of visitors to the Tonto National Forest, the Salt River wild horses roam freely in their 20,000-acre habitat along the lower Salt River, protected by A.R.S 3-1491, the State law passed in 2016 for their protection. They are the pride of the community, a favorite subject of photographers and the icon of the wild, free spirit of Arizona and the American West.
Just one new foal to the herd was born this March and the public enthusiastically helped to name him “Splendor”. The humane fertility control program has reduced the foaling rate in this herd from 100 foals a year, to just one or two per year, in order for the herd to stay in balance with it’s habitat as well as with government goals.
With this groundbreaking management program, Arizona is setting the example for humane management of wild horses. However, these successful programs and the intergovernmental agreements between the Tonto National Forest and the Arizona Department of Agriculture along with the overwhelmingly passed state legislation that enabled them, are now under attack.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service that seeks to overturn the will of the Arizona people and halt the intergovernmental agreements, which would result in overpopulation and possible starvation of the herd and subsequently, their removal.
The Salt River wild horses are protected by the State of Arizona from slaughter, but should removals of these horses be stipulated, it would be far too difficult and costly for the state to set up an adoption program and find good homes, plus there would be no guarentee that they would not end up in slaughter.
The lawsuit by the CBD makes claims that are very false and contains no scientific proof to back the allegations in it.
To start, the CBD alleges there are 600 Salt River horses. However, they base their lawsuit on the Long-Term Management plan, in which it clearly states there were 450 horses at the time of it’s writing in July. However, the current population is now substantially lower at 414 horses, in April of 2023. These 414 horses are recorded in a database that contains a record of every single horse, that has ever been on the Tonto National Forest. At the present time approximately 100 of these wild horses are not on the forest and instead reside on the adjoining reservations, making the exact total count only 314 horses in the Tonto National Forest.
An official fly-over helicopter count by the AZDA and BLM in 2022, confirms this with an estimation of 270 horses in 2022. Of those, approximately 150 are currently roaming near and around the Salt River habitat the complaint refers to, and the other 150 roam the northern high mountain habitat and are not dependent on the river for water. Therefore this petty lawsuit is technically aimed at 150 Salt River horses around the riparian area, NOT 600.
Second, the complaint omits the fact that the number of foals in this herd is only one or two per year. The population numbers are declining, because of the successful fertility control program by the 3rd party contractor, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. (SRWHMG.) This is an important detail in order not to mislead a judge.
Furthermore, the CBD falsely alleges that the long-term management plan aims to lower the population to 200 horses over 25-35 years. This is 100% false as well. Please see attached long term management plan that sets a population goal of 100-200 horses reached within the next 10 years. The lawsuit is therefore based on false allegations.
The relief the lawsuit seeks is the halt of the fertility control program and other programs that keep the horses safe like maintenance of fencing and rescue of injured horses. It may be obvious that halting the management of the horses, would cause a boom in population, which would then cause more environmental concerns, not less. What is the motive behind encouraging a boom in population if the goal is to protect the environment? This is the big question, and the answer is the dubious fact that the CBD is aiming to make the situation so unsustainable, that there will be a need to roundup the horses.
Even more falsehoods include the claims that these horses eat cottonwood trees, which they do not, and no such evidence exists. Therefore, fingers cannot be pointed to horses for cottonwood decline if there is any at all. However, the last few years of long-lasting drought and SRP low water management of only 8 CFS in the Salt River, is hard on all trees, especially water-dependent trees like cottonwoods on the edge of the river. In addition, the recent high floods have caused washing away of riverbanks along with many saplings, but otherwise cottonwood trees can be seen doing quite well along the Salt River.
Furthermore, the suing parties offer no proof of declining numbers of any of the species mentioned in the lawsuit. In fact all species along the river are living symbiotically together including the horses, who are protected by ARS 3-1491 from slaughter and killing and are determined in that bill NOT to be stray livestock.
Species are doing so well that bighorn sheep are being seen again along the lower Salt River with babies, bald eagle nesting is at an all-time high and deer are seen grazing the abundantly green hills this spring. (see pictures of deer grazing in a healthy environment)
In fact, the only population that is declining along the Salt River, is the horse population.
It should also not be omitted that horses do have many positive impacts on their environment, such as their manure that contains live seeds of trees, which at the same time provide a great fertilization bed until the saplings are established. Most of the trees in the forest have sprouted from horse manure, which helps all other species, especially birds. However, of course the lawsuit does not mention any positive impacts the horses have, as it aims to scapegoat them for all environmental damage.
A huge detrimental threat to all species of the lower Salt River is the extreme wildfire danger. With a great rainfall this year, there is going to be extreme fire danger with high fuel loads of dried-up vegetation. The horses help reduce that fire danger significantly, by consuming the dry brush under the trees, which is the fuel to forest fires. Wildfires would obviously be to the detriment of all existing species on the lower Salt River, regardless of if they are protected by the state or by the endangered species act. This huge value of wild horses may be the very reason the riparian area frequented by the horses has been spared from destruction in past forest fires.
Yet there are even more blatant facts completely omitted by the Center for Biological Diversity:
The Tonto National Forest is visited by 8 million people per year, which does cause severe problems with pollution and degradation of the lower Salt River. Thousands of tubers, kayakers, 4×4’s, horseback riders and especially the over-hunting of birds and furred mammals, impact all animals negatively, including the protected species. During the hunting season shots ring loudly all day, on and around the lower Salt River. Extreme amounts of hunting related trash and bullets litter the floor of the forest. Even illegal hunting activities, like cruel snares have been found around horse legs, causing a necessary intervention and rescue of horse Neiman in 2020.
It is obvious that the Tonto National Forest is managing one of the most difficult and highest visited forests in the nation and because of their concern for the environment and consideration for public opinion, they have made responsible and sustainable decisions, which are to their discretion and are not applicable to NEPA requirements.
Out of over-abundant concern for the environment, steps have even been taken to mitigate any damage the horses might cause, while the reduction of the herd occurs over time; for example, water troughs have been strategically placed away from the riparian area, which encourage the horses to use the entire 20,000 acres, as opposed to concentrating around the riparian area. The Forest Service has also placed boundary fencing between the reservations and fencing along the roads so that they don’t escape their 20,000-acre habitat.
The long-term management plan is a responsible management plan, in-line with protecting the environment, in-line with State statute, in-line with the Forest Service Nepa requirements, and in-line with the will of the public. The lawsuit, which seeks to terminate the successful management programs and “do nothing instead”, is frivolous.
Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group states; “If the environmental concern was genuine, they would not attempt to halt a successful birth control program, as that would produce a larger and uncontrolled population of horses. Once the population is out of control, then the horses will be removed. It will be far better to stay the course of humanely managing the horses, and all organizations plus the Forest Service should continue to work hard together to reduce and mitigate environmental damage and pollution of the lower Salt River”.
SRWHMG is vowing to intervene in the lawsuit and defend the horses so please stay tuned. Simone Netherlands is available for comment along the Salt River at any time, by appointment. 928 925 7212, Simone@respect4horses.com.
##The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG) is an Arizona non-profit organization (501 c3) dedicated to protect and humanely manage the Salt River wild horses in Arizona. SRWHMG works together with the Tonto National Forest Service and is under contract with the Arizona Department of Agriculture for the humane management of the Salt River herd. The Salt River wild horses are protected under State law ARS 3-1491 as an Arizona historic and national treasure. These groundbreaking and successful management programs set the example for humane wild horse management everywhere.
Link to the complaint against the horses:
Link to the humane Long Term Management Plan: