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Hundreds of hungry wild horses have taken over and are destroying ‘rare’ federal land, lawsuit says


Salt River wild horses eat hay at a site for emergency feeding run by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group near Coon Bluff in the Tonto National Forest near Mesa, Ariz., Wednesday, March 10, 2021. Due to prolonged drought in the area, the horses are fed hay daily. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

A coalition of conservationists, environmentalists and birders have sued the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), claiming that hundreds of wild horses are destroying Tonto National Forest in Arizona near the Salt River and putting thousands of endangered species at risk.

According to the lawsuit, there are currently about 600 horses roaming free in an area that can only sustain about 40 horses. The primary problem, the plaintiffs say, is overgrazing — a problem created when the USFS made an agreement in February with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, which dictates how the horse herd in the region is managed.

The plaintiffs — the Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon Society, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Arizona Deer Association, Arizona Bighorn Sheep Society, and Arizona Sportsmen for Conservation — allege that the USFS violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to consider the environmental impact of the February agreement. Because the area is one of the “rare riparian areas” in the American southwest, the plaintiffs say, protecting its ecosystem is of paramount importance.

But because of the land’s limitations, horses are are increasingly concentrated in smaller areas by artificial feeding in order to stave off mass starvation, the complaint says. As a result, the horses now associate people with food — and approach them accordingly.

“Overgrazing by the horse population has led to, and continues to cause, severe deterioration of the area,” the complaint says.

The complaint also says the agreement doesn’t include provisions for protecting species such as javelina, Gambel’s quail, mule deer, Yuma clapper rail, and bald eagles, despite the USFS having acknowledged the need to do so.

The February plan was approved by the USFS and the State of Arizona and was preceded by a 2017 agreement between the Arizona Department of Agriculture and the Tonto National Forest.

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In a statement about the lawsuit, plaintiffs point out that while a 2016 state law recognized a Salt River horse as “not a stray animal,” Arizona has denied ownership and responsibility for any damage caused by the horses.

The area was once used for cow grazing, but that ended in 1978 when it was determined that there was only enough forage for 12 cows and it was no longer economically viable for ranching. Following the change, horses moved into the area.

“This is another tragic example of Forest Service employees failing to do their jobs, obey the law and manage public lands based on science,” said Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s senseless to try to manage 600 horses in an area where ranchers couldn’t even sustain 12 cows.”

“When will the Forest Service get control of this historic fiasco?” Arizona Wildlife Federation Executive Director Scott Garlid asked in the statement. “These horses are unauthorized under federal law, and their numbers must be reduced to protect the federal land being destroyed.”

“Mule deer have already been run out of the area by the horses’ severe overgrazing,” said John Koleszar, past president of the Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation. “Native quail have no nesting areas with the habitat so barren. The Forest Service here does dozens of management plans per year for cows. What could possibly be stopping them from doing a science-based plan for the Lower Salt?”

Koleszar’s statement said that litigation is the “only alternative that we have left”:

The lawsuit is in response to the lack of a formal NEPA that the Tonto National Forest should have prepared. In doing the NEPA, it would be immediately apparent that having over 400 horses in such a small area has created an unhealthy environment for both people and wildlife. There are rules and regulations regarding forage monitoring, available habitat and the need for all species to thrive in our forests. Over the past 6 years, the miniscule reduction of horses has shown that there are no native grasses left over the 19,000 acres. The Salt River collaborative voted by overwhelming majority to keep less than 100 horses AND to supplementally feed them over their lifespans. In spite of over a year’s worth of effort, politicians decided to leave it alone.

The lawsuit asks that the court invalidate the Salt River Horse Management Plan and block the defendants from actions that would continue to harm the environment.

​The Forest Service said in an email Wednesday that it, “remains committed to working with partners and the public to sustainably manage the health and diversity of our forests and grasslands,” but declined to comment further on pending litigation.

Salt River Wild Horse Management Group did not respond to request for comment.

You can read the full complaint here.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos