It’s been a long road.
Before 2016 on Bush Hwy there was no sign that warned people that horses existed in this area. Wild horses could get onto the road just about anywhere, and the fences had not been maintained by anyone in 20 years, there was even question about who’s fence it was in the first place. Since that time, we have come a long way.
Bush Hwy runs through the middle of Salt River horse habitat and divides it in two, the south side and the north side. Both sides of this highway are important to the wild horses; On one side, there is the river; the life source. On the other side; their grazing grounds, very important to them, as these wide open areas and mountains provide important forage and less populated space, where they can still get away from the crowds of people.
The Maricopa County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is the agency in charge over that road and its improvements, and the Forest Service is in charge of the fencing. For the past 5 years we have worked very hard and submitted many a proposal for the current improvements, that you can now see on Bush Hwy, as well as more improvements that are coming between now and April.
MCDOT will begin the installation of permanent speed feedback signs, digital message boards and CCTV cameras in the next couple of weeks and they are also installing cattle guards at 8 recreation sites that were recommended by the Salt River Horse collaborative. We have urgently lobbied for those cattle guards to be horse safe cattle guards, but we do not know what they will look like until they have been installed.
The installation timeline for the cattle guards is as follows, with most of the sites remaining open during the day but being closed at night:
- Granite Reef north and south from Feb. 10-19
- Phon D Sutton from Feb. 18-24
- Goldfield from Feb. 24-28
- Blue Point from Feb. 26 through March 3
- Pebble Beach from March 2-6
- Water Users west from March 5-12
- Water Users east from March 11-18
It has always been one of our main missions to increase safety on Bush Hwy. 5 years ago, we asked and received permission from the Forest Service to start fixing the deteriorated old fences and adding gates for people. With barb-less wire we closed most areas of concern and reduced the amount of places where horses could cross. We did this over time, so that horses could get used to cross at a few horse crossings only.
MCDOT put up the first watch for horses signs in 2016 and then actual horse crossing signs in 2018. The number of horses hit on the road reduced significantly. However, the traffic was ever increasing and in 2018 and beginning of 2019, Bush Hwy went from a rickety old road to a widened smooth asphalt highway with guard rails.
The road improvement had an immediate disastrous effect, because the horses were confused by the guard rails and traffic seemed to feel that a smoother road was better for speeding. We had 5 horses hit that first week when the road opened back up, and some of you may remember the action week we had, and the vigils we did along Bush Hwy for the horses that lost their lives.
As a result, the huge message boards were placed and the WATCH FOR HORSES was painted on the road by MCDOT. For 2019 the total of accidents was 18 horses in 15 accidents, but most of those occurred during the first half of the year. the difference with the first half of 2019 and the second half is significant, because of these measures.
SRWHMG always goes the extra mile for the horses and our road patrol program prevented many accidents, because our volunteers drive up and down this road with no destination, to look for horses outside of the fence. By the end of 2019 we broke a record of no horses hit in 6 months time. Sadly it was broken when someone hit a foal on a recreation site of only 25 mile an hour speed limit.
While we do not always agree with the Forest Service and we wish they would take our advice into account, there is one thing we can all agree on and that is the safety of drivers and horses on Bush Hwy. We wish they had taken our advice and not made the fencing with barbed wire, but we are glad that the agency took responsibility, and the fences are doing a good job already, in keeping horses off the road. We are very thankful for all of the money that has been spent by MCDOT and FS on the improvements that have made Bush Hwy safer for everyone. We also want to thank MCSO for their enforcement.
Now that the north side of the road is closed, we have also closed the south side of the road with our fencing team. (that side of the road was not fenced by FS) All of the bands have learned to cross at just a single horse crossing; the Three way Stop at Coon Bluff. A horse has never been hit there since it’s installation in 2019.
Our road patrol team crosses an average of 80 horses there every day safely and SRWHMG is there to alert traffic when horses begin to cross. Now there is just one more thing that we need on Bush Hwy to finish these projects. When you protect a species, you have to protect their habitat. An overpass in the location of Coon Bluff, would preserve the horses’ important habitat and would ensure that no horse would ever be on the road again. Please sign our petition here to MCDOT for the overpass.
We want to thank MCDOT and the Forest Service and MCSO and we thank AZDA for their support and the ability to manage the Salt River wild horses humanely. We hope that no horse will ever lose its life on Bush Hwy ever again.
To support our wish for a wildlife overpass, sign our petition here.