Arizona Wild Horses Are Living Icons Of The Old West
Framed by the Superstition Mountains and expanses of giant saguaro cacti, Bush Highway in Mesa might be one of Arizona’s most scenic drives. It sweeps 15 miles through the Tonto National Forest, where the Sonoran Highlands desert gradually gives way to Ponderosa Pine-clad mountains just half an hour from downtown Phoenix. The Lower Salt River also meanders here. Lined with mesquite, palo verde and acacia trees, this is where the wild horses come to cool off, especially during the hot season when average temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Tonto National Forest was created in 1905, but according to state records, wild horses roamed here many years before.
From the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the Steens Mountain Wilderness in Oregon, there are several places to spot wild horses across North America. Thanks to the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and its president Simone Netherlands, Arizona’s Tonto National Forest is still one of them. Likely descendants of Iberian steeds brought by 16th-century Spanish explorers, the free-roaming mustangs along the lower Salt River attract tourists and horse-lovers to this corner of the Grand Canyon State.
Father Eusebio Kino rode through Sonora in the late 1600s bringing back horses from Veracruz, hundreds of which were thought to have been left behind after Mexico broke away from Spain in 1821. dated January 25, 1890, they would have been in the area at least 100 years ago. “The records we found do indeed prove that native wild horses lived here over a century ago,” she told InsideHook. “Due to the numbers recorded at the time and the lack of logs before that, they’ve probably been here for at least 400 or 500 years.”
The History of Wild Horse Management
Declaring wild horses and donkeys as “living symbols of the historic and pioneering spirit of the West”, the 1971 Wild Horses and Wild Donkeys Act made it mandatory to kill or capture mustangs (from the Spanish word ). mestengo, or “wandering beast”) illegal. However, explains the Netherlands, whether by failure or design, not all wild horses have been designated as protected territory under this law. Classified as “stray and unauthorized livestock”, therefore, they had no protection.
When left alone and unchecked by natural predators, feral horse herd sizes can increase by around 20% a year, with the government rounding up and culling thousands. As a result, tensions have simmered for decades between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service on one side, and wild horse organizations and advocates on the other.
The ranching lobby argues that horses are not “Native American wildlife” but a primary threat to land health that is decimating rangelands – basically, competition for domestic livestock has allowed grazing on more of 150 million acres of public land combined. The meat industry funds a federal grazing fee of $1.35 per “animal unit-month” for livestock on public lands and those managed by the Forest Service. To their detriment, feral horses — found primarily in herd management areas managed by the BLM and Forest Service on lands spread across ten western states from Montana to New Mexico — don’t fetch money to anyone. Allotted to 47 million acres of public land when the law was passed 51 years ago, America’s wild horses have only 26 million acres left to live on.
Save the horses from the salty river
In 2015, the Forest Service issued a notice declaring the Salt River herd unlicensed and announced a plan to capture, remove, and auction anything that remained unclaimed. The Netherlands, which founded the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG) in 2014, rallied outraged locals and political leaders to oppose the roundup. The response was quick and successful. Countless hours of campaigning and 65,000 emails then saw HB 2340, the bill designed to protect Salt River horses, signed into law in Arizona in May 2016.
“We asked for time to prove that we could reduce the population humanely through birth control and natural attrition,” says Netherlands, adding that the group manages horses under contract with the Ministry of Agriculture of Arizona, a win-win for the government, the public and especially for the horses. “BLM has an annual budget of $110 million, but says humane management of feral horses is too expensive and cannot be done effectively. We humanely manage these horses, keep them safe and well, with less than $500,000 a year in donations, and show them it’s possible.
Human herd management
More than 100 volunteers dedicate free days, evenings and entire weekends to help fence, patrol roads, feed, fundraise, clean up and educate visitors at recreation sites. Equine veterinarians, paid for entirely by public donations, help with medical care and rescues. Records of each horse, including birth and death rates, migration patterns and herd dynamics, are also kept. Family bands usually consist of a lead and mate stallion, a group of mares (female horses, one of which decides the daily grazing and watering routine) and their foals.
Selected volunteers are trained to administer a fertility control vaccine called PZP by remote dart, humanely limiting growth and maintaining a healthy population. The Netherlands says the foal crop was 16 in 2020, including two last year. Prior to the introduction of birth control, over 100 were born in 2019. The herd currently stands at 438, but the goal is to reach a lower target number that is still viable, sustainable for land and horses. “We’ve stabilized population growth by bringing the birth rate below the natural death rate, but ultimately our goal is to prevent displacement and keep horses on the Salt River where they belong. ”
How to see wild horses
You will need a Tonto Day or Discovery Pass to park at any recreation site along Bush Highway including Coon Bluff, Phon D Sutton and Pebble Beach. Kayaking and SUPing on the Salt River are popular and mostly low-impact ways to see the horses, but walking the trail or sitting quietly at sunrise or sunset can be the best times to find them on foot. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group recommends keeping a respectful distance of 50 feet from horses at all times.
To Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, hikes cross the river during the cooler months when waters are low and climb into the canyons along the edge of the lake in late spring and summer. Wild horses are not usually seen this far, but neiman, a solitary bachelor stallion, was a regular until he got his leg caught in a cattle grid. A joint rescue effort between the SRWHMG, the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Rural Metro Fire Center resulted in Neiman being released and successfully cured in March. Currently in rehab at the group’s headquarters, he will be released once his leg is fully healed.
wild horse pass
While the Tonto National Forest is adjacent to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation, 40 miles to the southwest, up to 1,500 wild horses roam free on the tribal lands of the Gila River Indian community. Home to members of the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee-Posh (Maricopa) tribes, the only way to see the horses here is with Equestrian Center KOLI. (“Koli” means “corral” in the Pima language.) Rides can be booked directly with KOLI or through the Mustangs and Massage Experience at Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Passwhere a private 90-minute morning walk is followed by an afternoon at the resort’s Aji Spa.
Of Pima origin, KOLI’s head wrestler, Robert Pablo, has a sixth sense for knowing where the wild horses of the Gila River like to find shade and take their dust baths. Pablo’s father’s favorite horse, Chuck – who has run the equestrian center since 2004 – was an adopted, untrained feral mustang called Crazy Alice, who escaped and joined a local herd before finding his way back several years later via a tribal roundup. Today, Robert’s “main horse” is his daughter Autumn, a petite but bulletproof six-year-old buckskin mare. Considered “an important part of their culture and a beautiful part of their heritage”, members of the Gila River Indian community have adopted, protected and humanely managed wild horses since 1995.
Zero Impact Interactions
“When you get to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat and observe the dynamics of their herd, it’s extraordinary,” says Netherlands, pointing out that contrary to misinformation online, horses are not fed every day at Coon Bluff. She also urges visitors not to bring food. “It’s for safety reasons and to prevent them from taming because that could also lead to their removal. We’re so lucky to have them here, but we want to make sure that future generations can see them too.
Holland has won the battle for the Salt River herd, but she fears the 400 wild horses her team is now fighting to save in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Alpine in the east of the state, don’t have such a storybook ending.
“Our research suggests that Alpine Wild Horses may be Arizona’s most historic wild horses. They roam along the Coronado Trail, which was used by [Francisco Vázquez de] Coronado in 1540, just 40 years after Christopher Columbus arrived in America,” she says. “It’s awful that it’s happening again, but we’re looking to help by also introducing a humane birth control program.”
Arizona’s wild horses are such an integral part of public lands, the Netherlands will continue to fight to save them. “We must keep a historical importance wild horses as they were meant to live – wild and free,” she says.
The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group receives no government grants and is entirely publicly funded. donations. Nineteen wild horses rescued from Salt River can also be individually sponsoredincluding Neiman, Shadowfax and band sisters Iggy and Felicity, who were rescued from a canal five years ago.
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