Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Conservationist's View of Salt River Wild Horses

In response to my June 4th, 2012 post "Salt River Wild Horses in Peril":

“Wild” Horses in Arizona are all animals abandoned by previous ranch operations or simply dropped in the desert by people who did not want them anymore. A few populations actually have documented lineage back to Spanish settlement. The only bona fide herd that I know of that could connect to the era of Father Kino is the herd that was acquired by the US Fish and Wildlife Service when they purchased Arivaca Cienega. Those horses were dispersed to owners and locations (including Jane Fonda) that were protecting the “Spanish Horse” bloodlines. (Some of them were at Pioneer Village north of Phoenix for a number of years). These horses had the lineage papers dating from Spanish settlement in Mexico and Arizona kept by the owner of the Arivaca Cienega and Ranch that had been handed down through the generations of her family. So even those animals were not “wild” in that she knew they were hers.

Most “wild” horses trace back to ranches or the U.S. Cavalry. In more recent time various native American tribes have embraced horses as symbols of their heritage, including the Salt River Maricopa-Pima Indian Community and they do manage “wild” horse herds on their lands.

Unfortunately-there seems to be a much better campaign for protecting horses and elevating their status to “Wild” and “Free Roaming”, similar to the efforts to legitimize feral cat colonies, than there is for native wildlife habitat protection.

There are specific locations in Arizona and elsewhere in the West that are designated as “wild” horse or burro populations protected and managed under the U.S. Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act. The Salt and Verde Rivers are not one of those locations. I support the USFS removing these animals.

Horses and burros are incredibly damaging to the riparian habitats. Horses strip the bark from trees, killing them. Sonoran desert plants did not evolve defenses or adaptations to equines, as the last equine native to the Americas was eohippus in the Pleistocene- a very small animal.  I have seen the washes where these animals roam degrade over the past 20 years.

Vashti "Tice" Supplee
Director of Bird Conservation
Arizona Audubon
3131 South Central AvenuePhoenix, Arizona 85040


  1. Another response-

    You will probably not like my response either.

    People need to understand the science behind the reasons land managers manage the land. Habitat destruction needs to be kept to a minimum to insure that populations of native species can continue to survive in our state and throughout the world.

    I graduated from ASU with a degree in range management and remember my professor Ward Brady teaching us that the impact burros make on desert habitats is detrimental to native species, sometimes tearing off whole branches of the desert trees when browsing them for food.

    Non-native species of all kinds are removed from federal lands because of the ecological problems they cause. By the early 1980’s the National Park Service had removed all the burros from Grand Canyon National Park. Scientific evidence supported the removal of that non-native species. The costly netting and airlift by helicopters of all the remaining burros was paid for by Cleveland Emory’s Fund for Animals.

    When the US Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act that Tice mentioned was passed, it indirectly caused an increase in the destruction of native wildlife habitats on federal land in many places throughout the west. The herds that gained the protection quickly grew, increasing the damage to plants, soils, and water quality, and decreasing the forage for native wildlife. The mountain range where I caught my first trout has a protected herd of “wild” horses. The various habitats, including high mountain meadows of the beautiful Pryor Mountains of south-central Montana are detrimentally affected by those horses.

    The United State Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are required to spend millions of our tax dollars yearly managing “wild” horses and burros on federal land. Uncontrolled breeding by the horses and burros requires roundups almost yearly to prevent drastic habitat destruction or starvation due to the growth in population in the herds. A suggested alternative, birth control for the horses and burros, is impractically unrealistic. “Wild” horses and burros are rounded up by using cowboys on horseback. Sometimes helicopters are required in encourage the animals to move toward the capture corrals if the ground is too rough for cowboys on horseback to do the job. If the captured animals are not then adopted, they continue being fed in a fenced pasture someplace, costing more money.

    This goes along with what Tice said about people unfortunately supporting feral cat colonies (like the one at the Gilbert Water Ranch) and “wild” horses and burros instead of supporting native wildlife habitats!

    Arizona’s riparian habitat today is about 5-10% of what it once was due to overgrazing by livestock, groundwater pumping, and the construction of dams. Tamarisk, an invasive tree species along our southwest rivers is hard and expensive to control. It grows in single species stands along riverbottoms where it outcompetes highly productive native tree species like cottonwood, willow, walnut, ash and sycamore.

    Removing the “wild” horses along the Salt and Verde Rivers would be a relatively easy and cheap action to take to help restore some of that riparian habitat!

    I tubed the Salt River in the late 1970’s and never saw any horses, so I would say they have no connection to any Spanish line of horses. My tax money should not be used to encourage their continued destruction of the riparian habitat. I am with Rick in saying that I favor the removal of all horses and burros from public lands.

    After reading the blog about the horses along the Salt River I have to say that I would prefer to see riparian-habitat-protective, binocular-toting birdwatchers around the next corner in the river rather than beer-can-throwing tubers or destructive, free-ranging “wild” horses.

    Larry Langstaff

  2. I spend a good deal of time at the Lower Salt River, both birding and looking for horses, and I would take issue with the generalizations above about habitat destruction by the Salt River Wild Horse herds.

    The habitat along the river area is lush. The mesquites, cottonwoods and other trees are alive and healthy, sheltering a variety of birds in abundance. I photograph them regularly. The birds, horses, coyotes, squirrels, and other creatures seem to have achieved a natural point of balance in this particular region.

    It's rare that I don't have to seek out the wild horses or rely on luck/chance or knowledge born of experience in order to find them. It's not like you can just see them everywhere! Most often they are publicly seen right along the river's edge, but as human activity increases seasonally (summer tubing especially) the horses disappear into the less humanly-accessible areas.

    And whenever I am with strangers when spotting the horses, their response is universally positive, as if they have been given a special gift -- a glimpse of nature that many people never get to see.

    My primary observation is that the greatest threat to the wildlife and habitat of the Lower Salt River is not horses, but rather the human population. That is, the human population whose fee-based activities generate income for the USFS and other government entities: day passes, annual passes, camping permits, fishing licenses, tubing rentals.

    Fishermen thoughtlessly leave tangled strands of deadly monofilament at the water's edge, waiting to entrap and kill birds and small mammals. It is sickening to see flycatchers and orioles weaving this material into their nests.

    Tubers leave coolers, broken flip-flops, mangled chairs, deflated tubes, product packaging from water accessories.

    Everywhere humans have gone, you'll find broken glass, despite the clear prohibitions for glass containers posted throughout the area. Debris -- ranging from plastic bottles to supersized drink cups to aluminum cans to discarded plastic bags to abandoned foam coolers -- litter the picnic areas and favorite fishing spots and trails along the water's edge. Just this week I saw a discarded grill or camp stove in the water at a popular fishing spot.
    And I cannot tell you how many of my photographs of beautiful herons, egrets and other birds in their "natural" river habitat are marred by plastic bottles and other trash in the background.

    If only the energy being given to the prospect of removing the wild horses would instead be directed toward minimizing the ongoing daily human-generated degradation of the Salt River habitat, all living entities occupying or visiting that habitat would be safer and healthier. It seems to me that it would be a much more productive endeavor for all involved.

    LuAnne Hedblom

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Good job LuAnne! I agree. We are all God's creatures and deserve a place to be free. Man is one of the most destructive animals on the planet Maybe the BLM should should manage us.

  3. Thank you LuAnne, I couldn't have said it better myself!

  4. Peggy I agree with you, LuAnn that is very well said.

  5. I lost all faith in the BLM being able to manage a 2-car funeral. They exhibited their incompetence in managing the interest of the Native Americans for so many generations and when taken to court, simply admitted their failings and simply felt that the past lossses should be forgotten and everything started again. Fortunately, there was a judge that realized how gross their incompentence was and didn't allow for the simple way out. Though it took a generation to finally get a settlement out of them, it showed the public the agency's incompetence.

    For my part, I'm urging my friends and the readers of my blog, to begin a letter writing campaign to their representatives urging them to de-fund enough of the agency to force a halt to this.

    For those with foundations etc., I would urge them to take the BLM to court, forcing them to prove that the horses aren't on the protected list.

    With a simple statement of some official, they seem to think that a simple glance at the horse can determine whether it's a stray or protected. They should be required through DNA testing to prove each one rounded up, is in fact a stray.

    While I'm not a birder, I respect those that are, and horses have been living on this land, with the birds, longer than any of us, and it's us that's ruining photos, and creating hazzards with trash, not the horses or the birds.


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