Information on Salt River Horses on the Tonto National Forest

Unauthorized Horses on the Tonto NF – December 11, 2015

What is a wild horse?

A. “Wild horse” is a legal status given to unmarked and unclaimed horses and their progeny that were considered wild and free roaming on public lands at the time of passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (WHBA) of 1971 (see 36 CFR 222.60 (d)).

Any horse introduced onto the Forest on or after December 15, 1971, by accident, negligence or willful disregard of private ownership is NOT a wild horse. Such horses are unauthorized livestock (see 36 CFR 262.10). Unauthorized livestock do not have the status of a wild horse under the Act. However, animals in this category are protected by state laws as stray livestock.

Are the Salt River Horses ‘wild horses’?

A. The stray horses known to occupy portions of the Tonto National Forest along the Salt River are not wild horses. They are considered unauthorized livestock.

The Tonto National Forest was surveyed for the presence of horses in 1973, in compliance with the Wild Horses and Burros Protection Act of 1971. The results showed there were no wild horses present as defined by the Act, as the only horses observed were branded horses that the stockmen from the two adjacent reservations claimed as their animals. Because no wild horses were identified, no territory was established on the Tonto National Forest. The surveys did, however, identify wild burros and the Tonto National Forest designated a burro territory after surveys were completed.

Where, how, and when did the horses get there?

A. The horses present in the area today likely originated from neighboring areas surrounding the Tonto National Forest. At the time of the 1973 survey, all of the horses observed in the area were branded with brands owned by residents of the adjacent Salt River or Fort McDowell Indian Reservations.

Have efforts been taken to return the horses to their original owners?

A. In an attempt to locate owners, the Forest Service has been in contact with the neighboring tribal lands since 2012, former permittees, and the Arizona Cattle Growers. No one has come forward to claim these horses. Most recently, the Tonto National Forest submitted a Notice of Unauthorized Livestock and Intent to Impound to the Arizona Capitol Time (paper of record); it was published on Friday, July 31, 2015. The purpose of the notice was to provide an opportunity for any potential owners to claim their horses prior to any action by the Forest Service.  

What is the fate of unauthorized or stray livestock? Will the FS allow wild horse advocate groups the opportunity to provide sanctuary to these horses?

A: The Tonto National Forest submitted a Notice of Unauthorized Livestock and Intent to Impound to the Arizona Capitol Time (paper of record); it was published on Friday, July 31, 2015. This was done to provide an opportunity for any potential owners to claim these animals prior to any action by the Forest Service. It also provides for the potential gathering these horses to eliminate the public safety risk, and starts the process to allow for private acquisition of gathered stray horses.

In the state of Arizona, disposition of stray or unauthorized livestock is handled by the Arizona Dept. of Agriculture. If there is a brand showing ownership they return it to the registered owner. If not, they refer to Arizona Revised Statute Title 3 Agriculture 3-1402 Holding and Sale of Stray Animals; repossession before and after sale, non-liability of state.

If these horses are unclaimed and sold at auction by the State, any members of the public, including interested advocacy groups, are free to seek acquisition of these horses. Several offers have been made to provide sanctuary to the horses.

How does the Forest Service usually gather stray horses?

A. There are many possible ways of gathering horses. During the planning stage, the Forest Service looks at the best and safest options available. The Forest Service contracts for gathering. Helicopters are one method that has been used by contractors, but helicopters are often only used to locate horses rather than drive them.

When will the Forest Service gather and remove the stray horses from the Tonto National Forest?

A: No date was ever set for gathering the stray horses on the Tonto National Forest. On Thursday, August 6, 2015, Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth issued the following statement:

We appreciate the local community’s feedback and we’ve decided to take another look at the proposed gathering of stray horses on the Tonto National Forest. The Forest Service will continue to engage with the local community, state and federal officials to explore potential alternatives for meeting our obligations for both land stewardship and public safety.

Further, on August 18, 2015, the Tonto National Forest issued the following statement:

Supervisor Neil Bosworth has further postponed any action regarding the horses on the Salt River for at least 120 days. “I have decided to postpone any Forest Service action associated with the impound notice for at least 120 days. Over the coming months, I hope to work with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and with other interested parties and stakeholders to try to find a collaborative solution to address the Salt River Horses” said Bosworth. “In addition, I am committing to provide the public and interested parties with at least 30 days’ notice prior to the Forest Service taking any actions associated with the impound notice.”

What prompted the Forest Service to propose to do something in August 2015?

A. The stray horse numbers have grown to the point that their safety is in question and the safety of the public has become an issue. In spite of easy access to natural water sources, watering troughs, salt and hay were placed on the forest by private citizens away from the river, drawing the horses to the most heavily-recreated and high traffic areas.

Many of these horses are not used to human contact and are spooked easily. The risk of someone being kicked or hurt has increased as the herd’s population has grown. And well-meaning individuals have fed and watered the horses, habituating them to the most recreated areas.

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.

People have asked that the horses be cared for and managed, which is something that the Forest Service has no authority to do. In early July 2015, horse advocate groups wrote the Arizona Congressional Delegation requesting that the Tonto National Forest take immediate action to prevent inhumane and unnecessary death by dehydration. The Delegation, along with the American Wild Horse Preservation campaign, was notified by the Forest that the horses were not dehydrated. They were, in fact, less than four miles from both Saguaro Lake and the Salt River and there was no barrier preventing them from accessing water. Forest personnel have repeatedly observed these horses along the river and adjacent to the Butcher Jones campground at Saguaro Lake, and news footage confirms this.

Who is responsible for the health and safety of these horses? What happens when a horse is injured?

A. The horses are legally considered unauthorized livestock (36 CFR 262.10). Because the horses fall under the State’s responsibility, when injuries or accidents occur to the horses on forest land, the Forest Service contacts the Arizona Department of Agriculture to determine the extent of injuries and course of action.

Is the Forest Service proposing to removing horses to allow for cattle grazing?

A. No. In 2002, all cattle were removed from the Sunflower Allotment. The entire Desert Unit and Otero, Ranger Station, Sycamore Creek Riparian, and Adams pastures (which include all pastures near the Salt River) will remain in non-use and unauthorized for livestock grazing as described in the Draft Decision Notice for the Sunflower Allotment Grazing Analysis Project, July 3, 2015, page 2.

Is there a way to limit the horses to a specific area so they are not a problem on the Forest?

A. Portions of the reservation boundary in this area are not fenced and in recent years horses have moved from the reservations or other adjacent lands onto the Tonto National Forest. Negotiations with the tribes to address the situation are ongoing.

Has the Tonto National Forest explored other alternatives to manage the horses?  

A. The Tonto National Forest has explored, and continues to explore, alternatives to address the horses.  For instance, the Forest has had discussions since 2012, both to share information and look at options for resolution of this situation. Discussions have taken place with members of various agencies and landowners, including the Forest, Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Arizona Department of Agriculture, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and Arizona Cattle Growers. There was a Feral Horse working group between the forest, the state and the tribes.

The Forest has also been in discussion with wild horse advocacy groups, and will continue to do so.  The Forest continues to seek a collaborative solution with the input of the public and interested parties, and which is consistent with the applicable authorities governing the Forest Service’s management of the Forest.

When will the Forest Service gather and remove the stray horses from the Tonto National Forest? 

A. On Friday, December 11, 2015, the Tonto National Forest issued a public notice to rescind the notice of unauthorized livestock and intent to impound. 

Because the Forest Service is continuing to engage with the local community and state and federal officials to explore potential alternatives with respect to unauthorized horses found in the Mesa Ranger District on the Tonto National Forest and to avoid continued public confusion resulting from the aforementioned notice, the Forest Service has decided at this time to rescind the impound notice published on July 31, 2015.