Frequently Asked Questions about the Salt River Wild Horses
1. Are the Salt River horses wild and native horses or stray livestock/feral horses?
The Salt River wild horses are a historic population of unbranded, unclaimed, wild and free-roaming horses that were born in the wild and are now protected by State Law within our national forest.
Evidence indicates that wild horses have been living on the lower Salt River since well before the Tonto National Forest was created in 1902. It is believed that the herd is descended from the Spanish horses brought to Arizona by Spanish missionary Father Eusebio Kino in the 1600’s.
The United States Forest Service (USFS) itself acknowledges that the horses have lived on the lower Salt River since the 1930s, but much earlier evidence of their existence can be found in the Arizona State Archives, in an Arizona Champion Newspaper article, dated January 25, 1890, which classifies horses in the Salt River Valley as “native stock.” To be considered native stock at that time, there had to be at least 5 generations who knew about them, so this article effectively dates them back to 1790.
Dozens more historic records and hundreds of eyewitness accounts chronicle the presence of free roaming horses on the lower Salt River throughout the modern era, into the 1970s, (when the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed), to the present day.
The FS’ claim in 2015, that the Salt River horses are not “wild” is based on a 1974 letter that acknowledged “dense riparian vegetation … makes it very difficult to … even observe these animals.” The decision to deny the Salt River horses protection under the 1971 Act ran counter to the longstanding FS policy to manage these horses as “wild” and distinct from stray livestock prior to 1971. In fact, then FS Regional Rangeland Ecosystem Specialist Curtis M. Johnson stated that the horses “… were not considered unauthorized … they were considered wild horses” and managed as such throughout the 1960s under the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960.
In a May 17, 1979, Phoenix Gazette article, Perl Charles, a former Forest Service official and noted conservationist (for whom many hiking trails are named) confirmed that the horses were wild and had been present on the Salt River “for 35 years that he knows of, and maybe since the turn of the century.” At the time, Mr. Charles was advocating for protection of the population of 40 to 50 wild horses, stating, “It’s a delightful thing to watch them running free.”
During his career with the Forest Service, Perl Charles estimates he rounded up and removed more than 3,500 head of wild horses within the national forests. Therefore, Perl Charles should be a credible authority on identifying wild horses, versus alleged “branded” Indian horses present at the time.
Simply put, the claim that these horses were stray livestock is not supported by historical or current evidence. No parties — including neighboring tribes or the State of Arizona — claimed these horses in response to the July 31, 2015, USFS-published “notice to impound.” Therefore, it may be assumed that they are actually wild horses and not stray livestock.
Update: The Salt River Horse Act, a bill that was passed and signed by Governor Doug Ducey in 2016, establishes that the Salt River horses are “not stray livestock”.
2. Do the Salt River horses help or harm the environment?
Of the 6 million annual visitors to the Tonto National Forest and the thousands of animals who call it home, the herd of free-roaming horses living along the lower Salt River is compatible with, and supportive of, a healthy ecosystem.
Claims that these horses pose a threat are based on scant research in other geographic regions that are not relevant to the lower Salt River region. And the data from these regions indicate that wild horses have both positive AND negative impacts and environmental benefits, much like ANY other wildlife species, including birds.
In fact, the 18-mile stretch where the horses still exist is one of the most biologically rich areas along the entire 200-mile river, in spite of the human caused challenges it faces. Photo-documentation accumulated by members of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group supports this observation with evidence over long periods of time. That evidence shows healthy and growing trees, seedlings sprouting from horse manure, abundant plants and flourishing wildlife diversity in the very area on the river where the horses roam.
Bald eagles on the river have been making a comeback since the early 1980s, and eagle nesting was particularly successful this year in the exact area that the horses call home, according to the Audubon Society. The horses and the bald eagles have been cohabiting together successfully and may even have a symbiotic relationship.
The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group cares deeply about the area, not only about the wild horses, but also about the birds, the environment and all other wildlife. We look forward to working with the USFS and conservation groups in any and all projects that improve the environment and benefit the ecosystem in which thousands of species have been harmoniously cohabiting for centuries. The lower Salt River should be preserved as is for future generations to come.
3. What are other pressures on the environment in this area?
The lower Salt River faces a myriad of human-caused challenges that should be addressed before scapegoating wild horses.
The Salt River ecosystem in the Tonto National Forest is impacted by many factors, including agricultural activities and heavy recreational use. The Salt River is heavily littered with trash, and the bottom of the river has accumulated several layers of aluminum cans in certain areas. Legal, as well as illegal, recreational use has impacted the riverbanks and the soil conditions. Items such as fishing wire, lead bullets, metal and downed barbed wire pose a serious safety hazard to wildlife, as well as to people and wild horses. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group members pick up bags of trash on the river daily.
In addition, the health of this natural habitat is heavily impacted by Salt River Project’s policies regarding water levels and the volume of water released from the Stewart Mountain Dam. At times during the winter, the river actually runs to just a trickle.
Recorded levels of output from Stewart Mountain Dam show less than 6 cubic feet per second released for months on end during the winter, which is less than 1 percent of the average output of 900 cubic feet per second during the summer months.
Water levels, obviously, have a significant effect on plants and animal life in the area. We believe this to be a potential source of adverse outcomes in the riparian areas along the Salt River.
5. Why is it so important to preserve these wild horses?
It is crucial that we make informed decisions based on what future generations of Americans would want us to do.
These wild horses are important to the local, environmental and global communities for many reasons, including recreational enjoyment and economic, cultural and educational contributions. The herd is iconic, representative of nature at its best: wild and free. It is also accessible — tourists and photographers come from all over the nation to see these wild horses.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the wildlife viewing industry in the U.S. garners a figure that grows every year. Wild horse ecotourism, in particular, is on the rise. Madeleine Pickens’ Mustang Monument Wild Horse Resort in Nevada draws international tourists willing to pay more than $1,000 per night for the opportunity to spend time with mustangs. On the Salt River, visitors can spend an entire day with wild horses for just $8 — the cost of a Tonto National Forest day pass. The Salt River wild horses draw visitors to the area, providing a boost for local businesses and the economy.
These horses are also important to the Salt River Pima and Fort McDowell Sovereign Nations and as such are protected by both tribes because of the horses’ long and rich heritage with indigenous peoples and because of their historic and cultural significance.
Children of all ages benefit from the presence of these horses. Local high schools have taken their classrooms outdoors to study the wild horses. Very few urban areas exist where students can travel a short distance to gain tremendous experiential knowledge in an outdoor classroom that extends beyond a school’s four walls. Educational seminars about the wild horses are offered routinely by Ranger B at the Usury Pass Center on the Salt River.
6. Who supported protecting these horses?
The USFS notice of intent to remove the Salt River’s free-roaming horses provoked strong public outrage in 2015. Hundreds of people attended rallies, thousands of people contacted the forest service and our elected representatives in Congress and the State House have spoken out, as well as U.S. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, U.S. Representatives Matt Salmon, David Schweikert and Krysten Sinema, and U.S. Representatives Martha McSally, Ann Kirkpatrick, Michelle Lujan Grisham, Krysten Sinema, who all sent attached letters to the USFS. In addition, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community released a strong statement of support for the protection of the horses. And, hundreds of organizations and businesses, as well as literally thousands upon thousands of people, were strongly opposed to the removal of these animals. In fact, nearly 300,000 people had signed a petition calling for their protection. It was this unprecedented outrage that saved the Salt River wild horses for future generations of Arizonans to enjoy.
7. What is the current management arrangement?
Pursuant to the Salt River Horse Act, The USFS and the AZDA have entered into an Intergovernmental agreement and the AZDA has hired the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group for the humane management of the Salt River wild horses.
While almost gone forever, today the Salt River wild horses are protected pursuant to Arizona Revised Statute 3-1491 (aka the Salt River Horse Act). This partnership between the Federal government, the State Government and a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) is a one of its kind and our groundbreaking program is finding the balance between it all. Key components of the humane management plan include:
- A humane fertility-control program to stabilize the growth rate of the herd. Immuno-contraception is humanely darted by certified individuals without need to capture animals.
- Range management measures, such as addition and/or water sources to facilitate natural horse migration and alleviate areas where horses are congregating in close proximity to people.
- Public education and other measures to promote public and horse safety.
- A data collection program that monitors the health of the herd and keeps records of each individual in it.
- A rescue program for critically injured wild horses that would otherwise die a cruel death.
- An emergency response program, including a feed program when necessary. We have sustained the entire herd in good condition even during the worst of natural conditions. (currently not needed as the forage is good
- A habitat improvement program organizing cleanups and downed barbed wire removal plus any other safety hazards to wild horses.
- A road patrol program to keep horses off the roads and out of dangerous areas. (and close gates that people forget to close)
These programs are 100% paid for by the public at no charge to the State of Federal government. Our programs enjoy broad public support, because it keeps these cherished horses where they belong, on the range.
Our non profit organization is a public asset, and the Salt River wild horses are an economic boon for the State of Arizona and a historic treasure that we carry into the future.
What is Humane Birth Control and Why is it Important?
We use PZP (Porcine Zona Pelucida) immuno-contraception to stabilize population growth. It is darted in the field by our certified volunteers, without capturing wild horses. PZP is the only acceptable form of birth control for wild horses, as it does not harm nor influence their hormones and therefore does not harm or influence their reproductive behaviors and herd dynamics.
Any other form of birth control, such as geldings or overyectomies, are cruel, expensive, and will influence their hormones, which is why we do not support those forms of birth control for wild horses.
Birth control is important, because the herd is fenced in by civilization on all sides and their resources are limited; therefore they cannot grow exponentially. The goal of this program is for each horse born in the wild, to be able to live out its life in the wild.
PLEASE Join us in this historic movement to ensure that these beautiful wild horses remain wild and free and managed humanely.
Where do the horses go that need to be rescued?
We operate a sanctuary for the wild horses we rescue. While wild horses are very good at healing and at taking care of themselves in the wild, nature can be very cruel sometimes. When there is unnecessary suffering and we can do something about it, we will. Most of the time, the rescues are necessary due to human influences, such as barbed wire, cattle guards, traffic or accidental human interference. Once we rescue a suffering wild horse we are committed to providing that horse sanctuary and a quality life. But we cannot do this without you. Please consider becoming a sponsor for one of our wonderful rescued Salt River wild horses.