What’s Going On With the Salt River Horses?

Wild horse advocates in Arizona want this iconic herd to continue to live free. But because of a loophole in the law, saving these horses may not be so easy.


The Salt River horses. StarsApart/Flickr/CC

The government’s idea of what constitutes “managing” the nation’s wild or feral horse populations has come to be a bit of a long-standing punchline, the kind of joke where no one’s really laughing anymore. By now, we’re all too familiar with the story of horses living out their lives in holding pens, eating up taxpayers’ dollars and experiencing a lackluster existence in a tiny corral with no purpose. We’ve heard about more humane management techniques involving birth control that would keep mustang numbers at environmentally-responsible numbers, allowing the horses to maintain their normal level of social function — techniques that the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies constantly ignore. And the latest chapter in this history of mismanagement is opening now in the Tonto National Forest of Arizona, where a much-loved feral herd is facing possible removal to parts unknown.

On July 31, 2015, a public notice was published by the Forest Service announcing that the horses in the Tonto National Forest could be impounded starting on August 7 — these animals being none other than the famous Salt River horses, who have an international fan following as well as a dedicated group of individuals who track their movements and capture video and photography. The Forest Service refers to the herd as “unauthorized livestock,” calling on owners of the horses to remove them prior to August 7 or risk having them impounded. After the gather, any horses who cannot be claimed by owners (a process which requires proof of ownership) will be offered for public sale. After that, chillingly, the notice states any unpurchased horses “may be sold at private sale or condemned and destroyed, or otherwise disposed of.”

In defense of the Forest Service, this is probably a fairly typical process: after all, you can’t just drive your unwanted horses up to public forest lands and turn ’em loose and hope for the best. And if this is what had actually happened in this case, it’s within their rights and responsibilities to remove such “unauthorized livestock” to protect the forest. However, locals and fans of the Salt River horses state that these horses aren’t unwanted feral animals, but true wild horses who have been living in this area for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, no one has true definitive proof either that these horses are mustangs or that they were recently dumped in the forest just a few generations ago.

But what about the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971? You know, the one that was supposed to protect horses on public lands? As it turns out, the law provides for protection of horses on designated range land — the land on which they were found at the time of the passing of the act. The Tonto National Forest was never designated as a wild horse area, so therefore any horses living within that range cannot be protected as a true wild horse. They are relegated to being “unauthorized livestock.”

With such a virtual tying of the hands in the nuances of the law, there doesn’t seem to be a lot that can be done for the Salt River wild horses. But to call attention to their plight and hopefully stay the hand on removing the herds, a Change.org petition has been created, seeking 35,000 signatures to petition the U.S. Park Service, the Tonto National Forest/U.S. Forest Service and Arizona state governor Douglas Ducey.

At this time, there is no evidence that a date has been set for roundup or removal; the August 7 date simply refers to the start of a period during which the horses can be removed.

The Salt River horses. Rick Grybos/Flickr/CC

The Salt River horses. Rick Grybos/Flickr/CC

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