Wild, Wild Horses


On a exploration of the Tonto National Forest by car, we stopped at Butcher Jones Road where we were surprised by a herd of wild horses walking through the picnic area and beach. Many, including us, ambled up to them trying to take photographs. I counted 13 horses in the herd. It is amazing to see wild horses. One onlooker explained to me that this was the only place the horses could access water so they came almost every day for a drink. We watched carefully to make sure we were not trampled. Apparently no one has ever got hurt by them though he recommended standing close to a tree since they never ran into trees.

Another photographer explained to me that he was part of a conservation group that successfully pleaded with the governor to halt efforts to send them to a glue factory. For now at least their tenure is secure. I applauded him for his efforts. We took many photographs of them today. How could we not?

The  volunteer group called the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (‘SRWHMG”) has made the protection of these wild horses their mandate. They believe that the horses and their ancestors have been roaming free along the lower Salt River in Arizona, for centuries. Arizona’s State Archives hold historic evidence of their existence in the Salt River Valley, dating all the way back to the 1800’s when they were already referred to as “native stock”.  But in 2015 they were threatened with total removal.

SRWHMG monitors daily the horses and keeps records of them. Sometimes they rescue and rehabilitate suffering and injured Salt River wild horses. Part of the problem is that the horses wander onto highways. As a result this group maintains and repairs miles of fencing along Bush Highway and recreation areas. They want to keep a small piece of “wild” for future generations to come.

The mustangs may be descendants of Spanish or Iberian horses that were brought to the Americas by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The name “mustang” was derived from the Spanish word mustengo, which means “ownerless beast.” Today the word “mustang” and “wild horse” are used interchangeably.

In 1687 one of the first European explorers of the region, Missionary Father Eusebio Keno journeyed to Southern Arizona (then part of the Mexican Sonora). Due to his efforts, missions and stockyards were developed. He reportedly left hundreds of horses and cattle at each mission. His many expeditions on horseback covered over 50,000 square miles. He had 6 successful missions in Arizona including in Phoenix and Tubac.

By the 1800s wild horse herds were found all over the western plains and were noticed by many settlers and explorers. For example, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark saw them on their historic exploratory expedition from 1804-1806. Sadly, the horses were treated like the bison. Mass extermination started around 1850 because wild horses were considered competition for cattle. Many were shot or poisoned. The United States Forest Services (“USFS “) and ranchers organized roundups to shoot them. Even as late as 1908 the Forest Service put out a standing order to kill every wild horse on sight in Lander County. The wonderful animals were considered “worthless.” In the Phoenix area they were slaughtered in the thousands. The Bureau of Land Management now believes that there are about 500 left in Arizona.

The USFS  believes that they are not wild, but are escaped “livestock.” They did not want to be responsible for their management. They were not able to find any wild horses when they went looking, but  SRWHMG today believes they did not look very hard. SRWHMG suggests that they based their analysis on only one faulty outing. Yet as a result the USFS said they intended to sell the horses unless someone claimed them. In 2015 they issued a “notice to impound” to the public, but no one came to claim ownership. Even the Native American tribes did not claim them. The SRWHMG therefore takes the position that they are not truly feral or stray livestock. What is clear is that the horses are indeed wild and unowned. The SRWHMG believes that they are part of Arizona history and ought to be preserved. As a result they are doing their best to protect them from possible destruction by the USFS. For the time being it appears that they are safe, but this protected status is fragile. Ironically, the wild horses now rely on the advocacy efforts of humans, their long time foes. In the world of wild life conservation this is a frequent anomaly. Life is strange.


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