Originally published on AZCentral.com

by Jessica Boehm

An advocacy group that worked to halt the U.S. Forest Service’s plans to remove free-roaming horses along the Salt River has dropped its lawsuit against the agency to show “good will” in future negotiations.

In late July, the Forest Service announced plans to remove the nearly 100 horses, citing public safety concerns. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group subsequently filed a lawsuit to stop the imminent roundups and secure federal protection of the animals as “wild” horses. The Forest Service considers the horses “feral” under state law.

The first part of the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge after the Forest Service agreed to postpone any removals in early August. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group has dropped the second part of the suit without prejudice, meaning it could refile in the future, its president, Simone Netherlands, said Tuesday.

“We just stand ready to work toward solutions, and should they make the wrong decision, we will refile this lawsuit,” Netherlands said.

The group is working with the Forest Service to determine a management plan that would address the Forest Service’s safety concerns, primarily involving the horses roaming onto roadways and posing a hazard to traffic, while still keeping the horses where they are, Netherlands said. A solution has not yet been reached.

“We can’t say that the horses are safe and we do not have them protected,” Netherlands said. “They’re not going to be safe until the day the Forest Service agrees to protect the horses, and that’s what we will continue to fight for until they do.”

The management plan the advocacy group has suggested would include a form of “humane” birth control that would be administered outside a mare’s reproductive system and did not alter the behavior of the horse, Netherlands said. She said members of her group are certified to administer this form of birth control and would take on any associated costs.

“We’re trying to leave as little as possible reason for the Forest Service to say, ‘no’,” Netherlands said. “There’s basically no reason why we can’t manage these wild horses humanely. This is the year 2015.”

Tonto National Forest spokeswoman Carrie Templin said the Forest Service plans to continue meeting with stakeholders to try to find a resolution.

Forest supervisor Neil Bosworth released an agreement Aug. 18 stating any action regarding the horses was postponed for at least 120 days and he promised a 30-day notice before any action was taken. Templin said that agreement has not changed.

She said the Forest Service still faces another pending lawsuit regarding the horses filed by Friends of Animals.

Friends of Animals’ legal director, Michael Harris, said his group had no plans to dismiss its suit without a court decision or a “binding settlement” with the Forest Service.

“My experience in the past has been if you don’t have something binding or a court order, the government isn’t always just going to work with you,” Harris said.

The Friends of Animals lawsuit claims that the horses should be protected as wild. Additionally, it claims that the Forest Service did not comply with environmental laws when it announced the original roundup plans.

Unlike Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, Friends of Animals is an “animal-rights organization” that does not believe in managing wild animals in any way, including the use of birth control.

“A lot of local groups are willing to sort of give in a little bit on the type of management, and I understand that, because local groups have a love affair with a particular herd. But we’re really concerned with overall the fact that wild horses in the West are being treated like a managed species,” Harris said.