The few dozen horses roaming along the Salt River east of Mesa have galloped into the attention of thousands of tubers, kayakers, photographers and even online fans from around the world as romantic symbols of the West.

But as the U.S. Forest Service begins to study the herd and plan its future, equine advocates have elevated the horses’ profile by warning the animals are at risk of being slaughtered to control their numbers.

A Salt River Wild Horses page on Facebook posted an alert May 31 that triggered a flurry of protest. The Tonto National Forest has fielded a groundswell of calls and emails in the past week, spokeswoman Paige Rockett said. Tonto officials deny an imminent roundup, or that they’ve made any decision about the animals.

The equine advocates point to an April 4 letter they obtained through a Freedom of Information Act stating Tonto officials are considering removal of feral horses. Rockett said removal is an option that must be evaluated, but that critics have read too much into Tonto’s early discussions.

“What is very, very upsetting is the almost definitive way that it was stated on the Internet message was ‘imminent roundup.’ I think the term slaughter was in the headline,” Rockett said.

Tonto formed a working group to discuss the horses early this year but put the effort on hold when the summer fire season began early, she said. Tonto plans to resume its efforts this fall.

Mesa resident Becky Standridge started the Facebook page after she began photographing the horses a year ago, and is convinced the horses are at risk despite what Tonto officials say. Standridge said she’s heard of plans to remove the horses from some officials, but doesn’t see a need to remove the animals.

They’re good for tourism and she said she’s personally encountered people who traveled from other states just to photograph the horses.

“You have thousands of people who go tubing and get to see them every year,” she said. “I think a lot of people know about them. I don’t think very many people even realize they’re in possible danger of being removed.”

Standridge has photographed the horses in detail as she’s tried to determine the size and health of the herd. She recalls seeing only one branded horse in the past year, which she said bolsters her claims the horses have not recently escaped to the Tonto.

Tonto officials call the horses feral. Standridge and the nonprofit Conquistador Equine Rescue and Advocacy Program consider the animals wild. The distinction is significant.

If the horses are feral, Tonto officials can remove them because they’d be considered trespassing on Forest Service land. Wild horses enjoy greater protection under the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act.

Patricia Haight, president of the equine rescue group, said oral histories and the dairies of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino show the horses date to the Jesuit priest’s missionary work in the Southwest in the 1600s.

She doesn’t believe the horses escaped from ranches or Indian reservations.

“They are a very key part of our history,” Haight said. “They’ve been here for a very long time.”

Haight pointed to Forest Service documents she obtained that showed several unbranded horses were removed recently from Tonto lands by cowboys.

The documents also show problems. Aggressive horses have charged people visiting the Tonto, and the color of some horses indicate they were carefully bred because those colors wouldn’t occur in an unmanaged population.

One letter describes a problem with horse owners abandoning their animals in Arizona. That’s triggered horse trailer owners to buy locks for the vehicles.

Surprisingly, “the locks are not for the protection of their personal horses,” the letter reads. “The owners lock their horse trailers (especially at livestock auctions) to keep people from sticking unwanted horses into the horse trailer to get rid of the animal.”

Standridge had been a Tonto volunteer, but said she was recently asked to leave after officials were upset she referred to horses as “wild.” She said she is doubtful Tonto officials haven’t already made a decision because some officials told her of imminent plans to remove the horses.

Rockett said she’s unaware of any horses being removed in her 11 years working for Tonto.

Rockett said Tonto officials know they have to manage the horses. She believes the population is growing, and problems have been reported with horses darting into roads and creating public safety concerns.

But several things have to fall into place before the Forest Service takes any action.

The Forest Service needs to estimate the population, document problems and research options such as contraception or removal.

Officials had talked about contraception extensively before the fire season diverted resources to more pressing matters, she said.

A plan will be developed with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, two neighboring Indian communities and others.

“Ultimately we would like to have some sort of group that is involved with suggestions and ideas about managing the herd so that the herd is happy and the herd is healthy, and everyone is doing well,” Rockett said. “We just aren’t there yet.”

Contact writer: (480) 898-6548 or ggroff@evtrib.com

(17) comments

shrinkingviolet

Do you yahoos just sit here on this site kvetching all day, or do you ever do anything about any of society's ills? Thought so.

suej1962

For your information bill phx I was NOT speeding nor was I on a cell phone when I hit the horse. I was just driving my in laws around showing them the beauty of the salt river area. The horse jumped out onto the road and I had NO TIME to even think about stopping. I was going 45 miles an hour which is the speed limit there. So before you keep talking sh*t about me you should get the facts straight. I've owned horses all of my life and yes I wish they could stay out there and share the land with humans but its not going to work anymore because there are to many people visiting that area now. I'm not saying to KILL them I just think that they need there own area. Yes, we took over their area as you say but there is nothing that we can do about that now, its 2012.

rusty

I've been hiking alongside these very horses for maybe close to 9 years now. I have many pictures of them. I've watched the tiny newborns mature into proud adults. They are a sight to behold. Some I have named. Two of the bands I frequently see have become quite accustomed to myself & my dogs presence. They are curious animals, certainly never threatening. These horses, I believe, are "wild" whose existence on these lands predate any of us or our forest stations!
On the dark side, for those uninformed, if they are mislabeled as "feral", these horses will mostly (or all) end up at a "kill buyer" auction and be beaten into trailers for shipment to Mexico and brutally slaughtered.
Are we so short-sighted and greedy that we cannot share the land with these magnificent creatures who do no harm? A land that rightfully belongs to them to begin with? Please, I ask everyone, help save these horses. Thank you.

Engaged Voter

"I said we should treat this invasive species like we should treat illegals"

I agree that an invasive species should be treated in this fashion...HOWEVER...if it can be proven that these are indeed WILD horses (as opposed to feral, recently escaped), then that distinction no longer applies.

Would you agree?

Juggernaut8000

You all should know, my comment was also removed despite it being no more harsh than some others here. Yes, I said we should treat this invasive species like we should treat illegals. Both are detrimental to our environment and should be removed with great prejudice.

All of you liberal, illegal loving fools should be relieved of your first amendement right to speak freely and shut up for the rest of your natural life.

bfera

Mr. Ceniceros, thank you for your comments, but just to clarify: neither Tribune editors, nor the reporter, removed your comments. First, reporters do not have access to that function in any way.
Second, if a reader finds a comment to be inappropriate, they can report the comment as such, and our editors receive an alert. During this process, the comments are automatically removed from the site. If the comments do not meet the standards set forth in the Tribune's user agreement (http://evtnow.com/evtuseragreement), the comment will likely stay removed. If they do abide by the agreement, our editors have the ability to "approve" the comment to show up again.

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East Valley Tribune
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Engaged Voter

WylieDog, just to clarify - "Well if you want to get technical, no one here - besides Native Americans - are native to this country or this state" <---The Amerind Tribes, the so-called "Native Americans", migrated here too. You are on point with your horse facts.

Poor, poor Leon...it takes a "special" kind of person to Godwin a thread on horses.
What a doofus.

Leon Ceniceros

Sorry Folks that you can't read my "original" comment. The Reporter or the Editor chose to "remove" my comment for what ever reason. But then the people in control of the East Valley Tribune don't really need a reason do they?

By the way, I seem to remember seeing Nazi soldiers throwing thousands and thousands of books on a bonfire on the History Channel. It seems that the Nazi's didn't like what the authors had written. "Things change....things remain the same".

Horsewoman

Horses originated in America and crossed the Bering Strait and then were re-introduced. They are a native, wildlife species as DNA and paleontological tests have shown.
The 1990-91 Government Accounting Office study proved the millions of cattle on public lands destroy the range and riparian areas and not the few thousand wild horses.
Wild horses are supposed to be protected and preserved under the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act . These beautiful, historic horses must be allowed to stay free for posterity. So few are left now. See http://tinyurl.com/4evvefn for the estimated population chart.

bill phx

I have Peruvian Paso horses. The Peruvian is a close relative of some of the American Mustangs. They were brought to Peru by Pissaro when he explored Peru centuries ago. Pissaro brought Andalusians, Spanish Barbs and Spanish Jennets. The Peruvian is a Spanish horse that comes from those bloodlines. There is a strong history that ancestors of at least some of the horses on the Tonto National Forest were brought by Eusebio Kino to the region. Father Kino also brought Andalusians and Spanish Barbs to Arizona as he traveled from Mission Dolores north all the way to the Mogollon Rim. My wife did the research.. If you look at the conformation of some of the Salt River wild horses ( and if you really know anything about Spanish horses) you can see that some of them are about the same size of the Spanish horses, they are the prototypical Spanish colors. Anyone who knows Spanish horses would see it. That they have the short back and low set tail of the Spanish horses. Others go back to the mounts of the US Cavalry. That said, a wild horse is an unbranded, unclaimed free roaming horse on public lands and the 1971 wild horse and burro act mandates that these horses be protected under the Act whether they are or are not Spanish. Read a book called the "Hashknife Cowboy: Memoirs of Mack Hughes by his wife Stella Hughes and educate yourself on the rich history these horses carry.

With respect to Native to Arizona. The horse gores back to prehistoric times in this country and the vestigial toe on every horse is a testimony to their prehistoric ancestors.

WylieDog

Why would you need to buy hay for those horses? There's PLENTY to eat out there for all of the animals. They are all well fed by nature.

downtownresident

Leon,
Well put!
So, now, are we supposed to buy hay for all these horses?

WylieDog

Leon, you obviously don't know what you're talking about. These animals, wild horses and burros, do nothing to destroy desert habitat or other species. CATTLE on the other hand, do MUCH damage. You want to protect the desert ecosystem, that is where your attention should be directed.

WylieDog

Well if you want to get technical, no one here - besides Native Americans - are native to this country or this state. But we, the almighty human species, sit as judge and jury and play God on who/what can live here and who/what can't. And that "native" bighorn sheep is actually native to Eurasia, not America. But because "trophy hunters" pay the big bucks for permits, you'll never see them classified as an invasive species. Elk = European Red Deer. And accidents happen, ask anyone who lives in deer/elk country, especially eastern states like PA, etc. As far as government management of wild horses - and burros - the only management they implement is removal. The Forest Service should be required to work with the BLM and put all removed forest horses into the BLM adoption program at the very least - not sell as "strays" at auction where killer buyers for slaughter are the usual customers. As far as "invasive species" go - look in the mirror.

mlimberg

Maybe we can round up politicians ( they're all feral) and send them to the glue factory with the horses and illegals....

Leon Ceniceros

Stray horses like stray cats and stray dogs should be rounded up and either adopted or euthanized.

These are not ...MUSTANGS...just look at them. Do they appear to have Spanish Barb or Arabian characteristics or body color ? The answer is = NO.
The have gotten loose over the years from the Reservation, local Ranches or been dumped by their owners.
They are eating scarce food from our Drought-ravaged desert vegetation that should be going to our ...ENDANGERED DESERT BIG HORN SHEEP and DESERT MULE DEER POPULATIONS.
These ...FERAL HORSES....take over water holes, springs, seeps and will attack these...........ENDANGERED SPECIES....when they are thirsty and looking for water.

IF THE "TREE-HUGGERS", "ECO-FREAKS", "BAMBI-LOVERS" AND THEIR ILK LOVE THESE FERAL HORSES SO MUCH............THEN ADOPT ONE......BUT LEAVE THE SALT RIVER/TONTO NATIONAL FOREST TO THE INDIGENOUS "WILD, NATIVE ANIMALS".

suej1962

I was almost killed by one of these horses when it ran into the road in front of me. I still have problems from the accident. I slammed into the horse and chopped it in half killing it and it crushed me in my van. I love horses and I'm very sad about what happened that day but I do wish that there were more fencing around them somehow or move them to more open ground for everyone's safety. There are to many people living in AZ now that use the river for recreation and to have such big animals roaming is NOT a good idea. I will never forget that day as I am haunted from it.

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