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.”