By Nanci Hutson, dCourier
May 10, 2016
The historic herd of 100 wild Salt River horses in the Tonto National Forest will soon no longer be threatened with auction or euthanasia thanks to outraged advocates who launched a push last summer that forced state and federal lawmakers to intervene.
On May 5, the state House voted overwhelmingly to support a final version of a bill proposed by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, intended to protect these iconic horses by making it illegal to harm them. The bill further requires a new official protocol for the humane management of the herd and its descendants. The bill now awaits Gov. Doug Ducey’s signature.
Advocates have no fear he will renege as he has publicly endorsed the bill proposed by Rep. Kelly Townsend, who worked with leaders of the Salt River Horse Management Group and her legislative colleagues to craft the final version. The horse management group is planning a bill-signing ceremony, though a date has not yet been scheduled.
For Simone Netherlands of Prescott, president of the horse management group, this pending legislation is a testament to the importance of these horses to Arizona’s heritage and tourism.
The proposed law makes clear that these horses are not “stray livestock,” and makes it a criminal deed for someone to harm or kill one of these horses, Netherlands said.
“It’s very gratifying to come to this end conclusion,” Netherlands said. “The legislators responded to their constituents, and we’re grateful they listened.”
Contrary to the U.S. Forest Service position last summer that these horses are “unclaimed livestock” that are not protected by the 1971 federal law that protects wild horses and burros, Netherlands and fellow wild horse advocates maintain these horses are descendants of 17th century livestock shipped to this land by Spanish missionaries.
Netherlands is quick to say this bill, too, is proof positive of the power of passionate people to influence politics. The petitions to protect the Salt River horses pushed the people in power to rethink the removal of these horses from their native land. “It’s been a crazy ride,” Netherlands said from her Williamson Valley ranch where she trains horses and operates a grass-roots horse welfare organization, Respect 4 Horses. “I’ve really not had a moment’s rest since the day the (U.S. Forest Service) notice came out (in August 2015).”
The Salt River Horse Management Group teamed up with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign to do everything it could to protect the herd. Netherlands has been the face of the movement, speaking on the floor of both the House and Senate as the spokesperson for thousands of horse rights advocates demanding this herd be preserved.
“There simply was no reason to remove these horses,” she said. “They are an important economic, and tourist, resource for this state. “Instead of having them become history, we made a little history. But it wasn’t easy.”
Indeed, Netherlands and her group last week rescued a Salt River foal; another was rescued a few weeks ago. They are both now recuperating in Gilbert, but will eventually be brought to her Prescott ranch for further care.
Netherlands described last week’s vote as a “historic day” for the Salt River horses, their advocates and the public who refused to give up on these animals that she called “irreplaceable Arizona treasures.”
Indeed, Netherlands and her fellow advocates were able to find common ground with some lawmakers that initially blamed her and the horse management group for the controversial stand taken by the U.S. Forest Service.
With the public outcry against the removal of the horses, U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake both suggested any removal be delayed until there could be a better understanding of how best to address the concerns.
Netherlands praised Townsend, and Ducey, for their diligence and endorsement of the legislation she and other advocates are certain will prove a catalyst for better management of the herd.
Though an official humane management plan still has to be developed, Netherlands said she hopes her organization will be consulted, and included, in those long-term efforts.
“Citizens across Arizona and the United States are cheering this victory for the cherished Salt River wild horses,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a national coalition. “… This is a great day for wild horses in Arizona!”
The Associated Press contributed to this story