The fight for the Salt River horses

The Forest Service is threatening to rid Arizona of a state icon

Emily Birkle, Design Editor

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On June 30, 2011, photographer Becky Standridge photographed a Salt River wild stallion saving a life. While crossing the river one of the herd’s fillies was swept into the churning current. Young and feeble, the filly faced certain death and was utterly helpless. Sensing the babe’s fear the stallion charged shoulder deep into the raging water, and with the assistance of two other wild horses the filly was brought back to safety on the shore.

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The Salt River horses are Arizona icons. As Arizona icons, the Salt River horses have attracted people worldwide for generations. However, their very existence is currently threatened. In August, controversy arose between the United States Forest Service and Salt River horse activists. The Forest Service wished (and still does wish) to remove the Salt River horses and put them up for auction, as the Forest Service believes that they are “unclaimed livestock.” Many passionate civilians and conservation groups have disagreed, saying they are wild and should be left alone.

Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horses Management Group, says the Salt River horses have been wild since the 19th century and should be treated as such. Well before a 1973 land survey conducted by the Forest Service, Netherlands refers to a 1957 issue of Arizona Highways that photographed wild horses in the Salt River area. Now, Netherlands said, the herd is about 100 horses and the growth rate is low.

“We have less than 500 wild horses left in the entire state of Arizona,” Netherlands said. “We are down to the last ones and should we remove this herd it would be devastating.”

Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain wrote a letter Aug. 6 (three days before the scheduled removal) asking the Forest Service to postpone the removal process until they were able to answer six questions presented in the letter. In response, Tonto National Forest supervisor Neil Bosworth issued the following statement: “We appreciate the local community’s feedback and we’ve decided to take another look at the proposed gathering of stray horses at Tonto National Forest.”

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Netherlands does not stand alone in her sentiment, as more than 100,000 signatures have been collected on petitions aiming to preserve the Salt River horses.

“The future generations have the right to see wild horses,” Netherlands said.

There is an active lawsuit and multiple petitions (such as this one) attempting to protect the horses. Both sides have had issues and are working toward a solution that can preserve Arizona’s wild horses while keeping the public informed.

Netherlands is serious about the Salt River horses and their fate. She offered numerous cherished stories about them and is dedicated to saving them.

If you are interested in learning more about the Salt River Wild Horses Management Group you can find them on Facebook or at saltriverwildhorsemanagementgroup.org. You can also visit this link to learn more about the Forest Service’s stance on the Salt River horses.

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