Salt River Wild Horses FAQ

For more information, please visit the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group’s website and follow them on Facebook.


1. Are the Salt River horses wild and native horses or stray livestock horses?

The Salt River wild horses are an iconic and historic population of unbranded, unclaimed, wild and free-roaming horses that merit protection within our national forest.

Evidence indicates that wild horses have been living on the lower Salt River since well before the Tonto National Forest was created in 1902.  It is believed that the herd is descended from the Spanish horses brought to Arizona by Spanish missionary Father Eusebio Kino in the 1600’s. An Arizona Champion Newspaper article, dated January 25, 1890 and located in the Arizona State Archives, classifies horses in the Salt River Valley as “native stock.” The United States Forest Service (USFS) itself acknowledges that the horses have lived on the lower Salt River since the 1930’s. Further historic records and eyewitness accounts chronicle the presence of free roaming horses on the lower Salt River throughout the modern era, through the 1970’s, when the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed, to present day.

The FS’ claim that the Salt River horses are not “wild” is based on a 1974 letter that acknowledged “dense riparian vegetation…makes it very difficult to…even observe these animals.” The decision to deny the Salt River horses protection under the Act ran counter to the longstanding FS policy to manage these horses as “wild” and distinct from stray livestock prior to 1971. In fact, then FS Regional Rangeland Ecosystem Specialist, Curtis M. Johnson, stated that the horses “…were not considered unauthorized…they were considered wild horses” and managed as such throughout the 1960’s.

In a May 17, 1979 Phoenix Gazette article, Perl Charles, a former Forest Service official and noted conservationist (for whom many hiking trails are named) confirmed that the horses were wild and had been present on the Salt River “for 35 years that he knows of, and maybe since the turn of the century”. At the time, Mr. Charles was advocating for protection of the population of 40 to 50 wild horses, stating, “It’s a delightful thing to watch them running free.”

During his career with the Forest Service, Perl Charles estimates he rounded up and removed over 3500 head of wild horses within the national forests. Therefore, Perl Charles should be a credible authority on identifying wild horses versus alleged “branded” Indian horses present at the time.

Simply put, USFS claim that these horses are stray livestock is not supported by historical or current evidence. No parties  -- including neighboring tribes or the State of Arizona - claimed these horses in response to the July 31, 2015, USFS published  “notice to impound”. Therefore it may be assumed that they are not truly stray livestock. 


2. Do the Salt River horses help or harm the environment?

Of the six million annual visitors to the Tonto National Forest and the tens of thousands of animals who call it home, the small herd of free-roaming horses living along the lower Salt River is compatible with, and supportive of, a healthy ecosystem.  

There are no scientific data published in any peer-reviewed journal about the Salt River wild horses or the lower Salt River habitat. Neither the U.S. Forest Service nor any other organizations have performed a scientific study or overall environmental assessment of the lower Salt River, indicating that there have not been serious environmental concerns on the lower Salt River to date. 

Claims that these horses pose a threat are based on scant research in other geographic regions that are not relevant to the lower Salt River region. And the data from these regions indicate that wild horses have both environmental impacts and environmental benefits, much like any other wildlife species, including birds.

In fact, the 16-mile stretch where the horses graze is one of the most biologically rich areas along the entire 200-mile river, in spite of the human caused challenges it faces. Photo-documentation accumulated by members of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group supports this observation with evidence over long periods of time showing healthy and growing trees, seedlings sprouting from horse manure, abundant plants and flourishing wildlife diversity in the very area on the river where the horses roam.

Bald Eagles on the river have been making a comeback since the early 1980’s and eagle nesting was particularly successful this year in the exact area that the horses call home, according to the Audubon Society itself. The horses and the bald eagles have been cohabiting together successfully and may even have a symbiotic relationship.

The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group cares deeply, not only about the wild horses, but also about the birds, the environment and all other wildlife. We look forward to working with the USFS and conservation groups in any and all projects that improve the environment and benefit the ecosystem, in which thousands of species have been harmoniously co-habiting for more than a century. The lower Salt River should be preserved as is, for future generations to come.


3.  What are other pressures on the environment in this area?

The lower Salt River faces a myriad of human-caused challenges that should be addressed before scapegoating this small herd of extremely rare and valuable wild horses.  

The Salt River ecosystem in the Tonto National Forest is impacted by many factors, including agricultural activities and heavy recreational use. The Salt River is heavily littered with trash and the bottom of the river has accumulated several layers of aluminum cans in certain areas. Legal as well as illegal recreational use has impacted the riverbanks and the soil conditions. Items such as fishing wire, lead bullets, metal and old downed barbed wire pose a serious safety hazard to wildlife as well as to people and wild horses. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group members pick up bags of trash on the river daily, organize  bi- monthly cleanup days and also participate in the FS yearly cleanup day.

In addition, the health of this natural habitat is heavily impacted by Salt River Project’s policies regarding water levels and volume of water released from the Stewart Mountain dam.  At times, during the winter, the river actually runs to just a trickle. Recorded levels of output from Stewart Mountain Dam show less than 6 cubic feet per second released for months on end during the winter, which is less than 1% of the average output of 900 cubic feet per second during the summer months. Water levels, obviously, have a significant effect on plants and animal life in the area. We believe this to be a potential source of adverse outcomes in the riparian areas along the Salt River.


4. Are there public safety concerns related to the horses?

The FS initially cited public safety as its main motivation for removing the horses.  Yet, the FS states on its website that in nearly three years, there were only four accidents involving a horse, with no mention of any human injuries:

Between January 1, 2013, and August 4, 2015, Maricopa County documented at least 30 incidents involving these stray horses, from reports of horses on or near a road to vehicle accidents with horses.  Twenty-six of these calls for service were to report horses on or near roads.  Four of the calls for service resulted in a vehicle accident involving a horse, which required one horse to be put down.

According to statistics from Maricopa County and Department of Public Safety, collisions with other types of wildlife happen in the Forest with greater frequency, but there are no plans to remove other wildlife species, only horses.

Regarding non-traffic related safety concerns, to our knowledge, in the history of recreation on the Tonto National Forest there has never been an injury reported of a human, caused by a wild horse.

Any traffic safety issues that do arise can be addressed by continued work between the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and the Maricopa County Department of Transportation.  This work has already begun with the placement, in late 2014, of “watch for horses” signs placed strategically at each of the eight horse crossings on Bush Highway. Additional safety measures could include flashing lights at dusk, when visibility is low.


5.  Why is it so important to save these wild horses?

Now that we are down to the last of these historic living symbols, it is crucial that we make informed decisions based on science and based on what future generations of Americans would want us to do. 

These wild horses are crucially important to the local, environmental, and the global community for many reasons that include recreational enjoyment and economic, cultural, and educational contributions. The herd is iconic, representative of nature at its best: wild and free. It is also accessible -- tourists and photographers come from all over the nation to see these wild horses.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the wildlife viewing industry in the U.S. garnered $65.7 billion in 2012 alone, and is growing every year. Wild horse eco-tourism in particular is on the rise. Madeleine Pickens’ Mustang Monument Wild Horse Resort in Nevada is drawing international tourists willing to pay over $1,000 per night for the opportunity to spend time with mustangs. On the Salt River, visitors can spend an entire day with wild horses for just seven dollars -- the cost of a Tonto National Forest day pass. The Salt River wild horses draw visitors to the area, providing a boost for local businesses and the economy.

These horses are also important to the Salt River Pima and Fort McDowell Sovereign Nations and as such are protected by both tribes because of the horses’ long and rich heritage with indigenous peoples and because of their historic and cultural significance.

Children of all ages benefit from the presence of these horses. Local high schools have brought their classrooms outdoors to study the wild horses. Very few urban areas exist where students can travel a short distance to gain tremendous experiential knowledge in an outdoor classroom that extends beyond a school’s four walls. Educational seminars about the wild horses are offered routinely by Ranger B at the Usury Pass Center on the Salt River.


6. Who supports protecting these horses?

The USFS notice of intent to remove the Salt River’s free roaming horses provoked strong public outrage. Public support for these horses is demonstrated by more than 200 people who attended an August rally in support of the horses and 250 citizens who attended a town hall meeting a few days later.  Our elected representatives in the Congress and the State House have spoken out as well as U.S. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, U.S. Representatives Matt Salmon, David Schweikert and Krysten Sinema, and U.S. Representatives Martha McSally, Ann Kirkpatrick, Michelle Lujan Grisham, Krysten Sinema have all sent letters to USFS raising concerns about its plans to remove the horses. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has expressed his support for the horses on social media, as well as Sherriff Joe Arpaio.  In addition, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community released a strong statement of support for the protection of the horses. And, hundreds of organizations and businesses as well as literally thousands upon thousands of people, just like you, are strongly opposed to the removal of these animals. In fact, nearly 300,000 people have signed a petition calling for their protection.


7. How can USFS protect the Salt River free roaming horses?

NOTHING IN THE FOREST SERVICE DIRECTIVE PROHIBITS THE US FOREST SERVICE FROM MANAGING WILD HORSES. Legally, USFS has the discretion to protect these horses for future generations by managing them as part of its overall forest management plan. The USFS can also choose to protect the horses by designating a territory for them under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group has presented Tonto National Forest officials with a detailed proposal for a humane management program and is offering a public-private partnership to implement it.  Key components of the plan include:

●     A humane fertility control program to manage herd expansion. Immuno-contraception can be humanely darted by certified individuals without need to capture animals.

●     Range management measures such as addition and/or removal of fencing or restoration of water sources to facilitate natural horse migration and alleviate areas where horses are congregating in close proximity to people.

●     Continued work with the Maricopa County Department of Transportation to improve traffic safety through horse crossing signs and other measures, such as “animal detection systems” that trigger warning lights or other signals when large animals are present. Such traffic safety improvements could be privately funded.

●     Public education and other measures to ensure public and horse safety.

●     Long-term range health studies to determine impacts of various uses, including but not limited to the horses.

By entering into a public-private partnership for the humane management of the Salt River wild horses, the USFS can balance recreational, environmental and public safety concerns while delivering win-win solutions that will protect this iconic herd for future generations to come.


8. What can I do to help?

Sign the petition asking that the Forest Service to protect the Salt River wild horses in their historic home.

Contact Congress in support of federal protection for the Salt River wild horses in their habitat. Click here.

Volunteer for the Salt River Wild Management Group and follow them on Facebook

Join the email list for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign to stay up to date on news relating to the Salt River wild horses and other wild horses and burros in the U.S.