Lawmakers demand halt over Arizona plan to round up wild horses

© Miguel Vidal
Arizona lawmakers, following a protest by local residents, have called for the halt of a plan by the Tonto National Forest to round up wild horses which they say have become a safety problem.

Lawmakers were responding to a press conference held on Tuesday night which drew 150 people who threatened to seek a federal court injunction against the US Forest Service’s plan to round up the horses.

Activists also say that the Forest Service has not conducted an environmental impact statement to justify the horse removals.

Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both from Arizona, wrote to the Forest Service calling for a postponement of the roundups.

The fight began when the Tonto National Forest posted a notice last week threatening to impound wild horses, which roam in the forest near the Salt River, beginning this Friday, and continuing for the next 12 months.

Forest officials said the horses were creating both a danger and a nuisance, with some killed in accidents on the local highway. Others have trampled campgrounds, they said.

We’ve got horses in campgrounds, we’ve got horses on the highway,” Carrie Templin, spokeswoman for Tonto National Forest, said to the Arizona Republic newspaper.

We would love to see these horses go to a safe place where the potential for accidents doesn’t exist.”

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The plan was to roundup 100 of them and hand them over to the Arizona Department of Agriculture, which would decide their fate. The public notice said the horses could be put up for public or private sale or they will be “condemned and destroyed, or otherwise disposed of.”

The Arizona Department of Agriculture, however, told the Arizona Republic that they did not have an agreement with the Tonto National Forest to handle the horses.

The Forest Service also said it was developing similar plans for wild horses roaming in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, and the Navajo Nation was negotiating an agreement to remove hundreds of wild horses from reservation lands without sending them to slaughterhouses, the newspaper reported.

While activists threatened to seek a federal injunction against the Forest Service, the move might not save the Salt River horses.

Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, all national forests were required to conduct surveys of their areas and determine if wild horses roamed on forest lands.

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Templin told the Arizona Republic that, at the time, the Forest Service found all the horses in the forest had been claimed, mostly by Native American tribes, and because of that no wild-horse territory was created. That means the horses in Tonto are categorized as stray livestock under the law, and therefore not protected.

Locals dispute the 1971 findings and say they believe the horses are descendants of wild Spanish horses.