New legislation designed to protect wild horses

Rep. Kelly Townsend explains a new law designed to protect a herd of wild horses along the Salt River from being harassed and even removed.

Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer

Rep. Kelly Townsend explains a new law designed to protect a herd of wild horses along the Salt River from being harassed and even removed.

PHOENIX – A herd of about 500 wild horses along the Salt River could soon get protection from everything from being removed by the Forest Service to being harassed by drunken tourists.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that makes it illegal to harass, shot, injure or slaughter a horse that is part of the herd. And even capturing or euthanizing a horse that is injured or is causing problems would require written authorization from either the state Department of Agriculture or the Maricopa County Sheriff.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who spearheaded the legislation, said this should end the threats to the herd that began last year after the U.S. Forest Service announced it would round up the horses in the Tonto National Forest and sell them to protect the environment in and around the river. Environmental groups sided with the federal agency.

But that provoked an outcry from horse lovers and even a lawsuit to prevent their removal.

The Forest Service agreed to back off, at least for the time being. This new law specifically authorizes the state to enter into an agreement with the federal agency where the state would effectively be in charge of managing the herd.

More to the point, Townsend said, it shields the herd from humans, well-intentioned or otherwise.

“We had some folks that would go down there and maybe had been drinking too much and wanted to ride a horse,’’ she said. “And the worst part is when the folks would be down there shining a light

on a mare when she was foaling.’’

All that, Townsend said, should come to an end.

“There’s rules now that we all are going to have to abide by,’’ she said.

Well, not exactly.

The language of HB 2340 says the provisions take effect only if an agreement is hammered out with the Forest Service by the end of next year. But Townsend said she is convinced that will happen, noting that a Forest Service official was at Wednesday’s signing ceremony with the governor.

Part of the need for the state law is that the horses are not protected under a 1971 federal law designed to preserve wild herds. Instead, they fall under the category of survivors of horses that were released by their owners.

More to the point, that means they can be legally removed as nuisances on federal land, much in the same way as cattle.

Townsend, however, has a different take on it.

“They deserve to be there,’’ she said. “These horses were there before Arizona was a state and deserve to stay.’’

Townsend also said that having the wild herd there

could lead to more tourism -- with the caveat that the horses are wild and need to remain undisturbed.

Ducey, in a prepared statement, called the horses “beautiful, majestic and a treasure to our state.’’

The measure contains one other provision making it a crime to intentionally release a domesticated horse into the wild.