A wild horse grazes in the desert in the Tonto National Forest near the Salt River on March 5, 2017.
Michael Chow/The Republic
PHOENIX — After years of controversy and uncertainty, representatives for Arizona and the federal government say they have reached an agreement that will ensure the long-term protection of the free-roaming horses near the Salt River.
The Arizona Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service had until Dec. 31 to ink a management deal for the horses.
With little time to spare, the two government agencies announced Friday they had reached an agreement.
“This is a positive development and the first step to ensure that the Salt River horses can roam without fear of danger or harassment,” Arizona Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Sharma Torrens said. “We look forward to continuing this important collaboration and process.”
The agreement, provided to The Arizona Republic on Friday, splits management responsibilities between the two government agencies.
The Forest Service will construct fences near the Salt River to prevent the horses from endangering the public and to ensure that other livestock does not join the herd.
The Forest Service also will conduct environmental studies, monitor the riparian area and coordinate with the state.
The federal agency also will reimburse the Department of Agriculture up to about $90,000 a year for its management expenses.
The Agriculture Department will employ a Salt River horse liaison to work with the Forest Service. The state also will work with one or more third parties to create a birth-control program for the horses and to provide veterinary care for injured horses.
The agreement allows a 2016 law to take effect. The horses will no longer be considered stray wildlife and the law makes it illegal to slaughter, harass, shoot, injure or kill the horses.
Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management, speaks about a new law beginning in 2018 during a press conference at Red Mountain Stables on December 29, 2017 in Mesa, Ariz.
Patrick Breen/The Republic
State Rep. Kelly Townsend, the sponsor of the 2016 law, said the state’s ownership of the horses was critical to their safety.
“(Before the law) they weren’t considered wildlife, they weren’t considered agriculture — it was just kind of this gray area where anything could happen to them,” said Townsend, a Republican from Mesa.
In August 2015, the Forest Service announced it would round up and remove the herd of about 100 horses that roam near the Salt River Recreation Area. The Forest Service said the horses were causing safety issues.
An outcry from animal lovers and politicians alike halted the planned roundups, but their long-term protection wasn’t ensured until this week’s agreement, according to advocates.
“The horses are protected against harassment and against slaughter. That’s what we’ve been fighting for this entire time,” Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, told The Republic.
Townsend’s law also allows the state to partner with a non-profit to manage the horses, a service Netherlands’ group hopes to provide.
She said the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group has volunteers on the Salt River every day tracking the horses and they rehabilitate injured horses.
“We just hope to continue that,” she said.
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