photo by Salt River Wild Horses Group
by Jamie Ross
Public protest and a timely letter from Arizona’s senators made the U.S. Forest Service backtrack Thursday on a plan to round up 100 wild horses from a national forest, possibly to be sold as meat.
The Forest Service gave public notice on July 31 that unclaimed horses living in forests along the Salt River were subject to removal after Friday, August 7, to be sold at public auction. Any horses not sold then “may be sold at private sale or condemned and destroyed, or otherwise disposed of.”
Neil Bosworth, supervisor of the Tonto National Forest, said Thursday that the agency would postpone the roundup, though a federal judge Wednesday refused to give protesters an injunction to stop it.
“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,” Bosworth said. “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.”
The plan sparked outcry from the public. It also brought a letter from Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, with 10 pointed questions in it, including public safety, humane treatment of the animals, and citing the West’s love affair with wild horses.
“Whether they are treated as feral under state law or ‘wild’ under federal law, horses are celebrated as icons of the West,” the senators wrote Wednesday.
The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group sued the Forest Service on Wednesday, but U.S. District Judge Neil Wake rejected it the same day.
“The majority of these horses will be purchased for slaughter and sold for their meat,” the group said in its lawsuit.
The horse lovers claim the horses have lived in the area since the 1800s, and that the Forest Service did not try to determine whether the horses are “wild free-roaming,” and protected from removal under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971.
Wake rejected the request for a temporary restraining order because the Forest Service was not properly served. He set a hearing for August 12.
“We are not canceling the lawsuit, but we are willing to come to the table with the Forest Service privately before our meeting in the judge’s chambers,” the group said in a statement.
The 2.9 million acre Tonto National Forest, which stretches from northeast of Phoenix to beyond Flagstaff, is the fifth-largest national forest in the United States.