Animal advocate: House Bill 2340 may sound good, but it could hurt the Salt River horses in the long run.
America’s remaining wild horses are under attack. Federal land managers throughout the western U.S. are under pressure from grazing and mining interests to step-up removal of horses from public lands. Many horse advocates fear that these special interest groups may soon succeed in eradicating wild horses from many areas previously dedicated for their protection.
Given these circumstances, it would seem that state Rep. Kelly Townsend’s recent proposal to transfer ownership of the Salt River wild horses to the state is a godsend. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that the U.S. Forest Service announced its intent to remove all horses from the Tonto National Forest. Although that plan has been postponed by the Forest Service, House Bill 2340 appears to be aimed at making sure that it cannot be revived in the future.
Transferring the Salt River wild horses from federal to state management, however, is not the best means of providing lasting protection to these animals. While advocates of the Salt River horses don’t see eye-to-eye on every proposal, all agree that the long-term solution lies in obtaining federal designation of these horses under the free-roaming Wild Horses and Burro Act (WHBA).
This federal law, passed in 1971, provides a means for protecting wild horses through the designation of areas where horses are to be protected and given primary management consideration. The Wild Horses Act also prohibits their removal and killing, except in limited circumstances by federal officials.
Nothing in House Bill 2340 replicates such protections. To the contrary, the proposed state law does not provide for sufficient funding, or prohibit a decision later on to round up the herd for removal and/or slaughter if management proves too costly or difficult for the state.
House Bill 2340 would also set a dangerous precedent nationally. Many other states would also like to see the transfer of wild horses on public lands from federal to state officials. Often their stated motive is not to protect the horses, but to destroy them.
For instance, the governor of Wyoming has sued the federal government demanding the removal of all wild horses under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management in his state. Just a couple years ago, the Nevada State Legislature, unable to directly authorize the removal of wild horses on federal public lands in that state, considered a bill instead to make it illegal to provide wild horses access to water.
Wild horses have enough problems under federal management. For one thing, they are losing the battle with state and local grazing interests. Nationally, the ratio of privately owned cows legally foraging on public lands compared to wild horses is close to 50 to 1. Even in many so-called “Horse Management Areas,” upwards of 80 percent of the available forage is reserved for cattle.
The last thing these animals need is another reason for the federal government to give more control over them to the states. While not the intent, House Bill 2340 will be used by others to advocate for less federal control.
While not easy, the real solution to protect wild horses, whether the Salt River herd or any other in the west, is stronger implementation and enforcement of the Wild Horses Act. The goal needs to be the establishment of true zones on public lands where these animals can be free from exploitation and protected from special interests who want to see them gone.
Michael Harris is director of the Wildlife Law Program for animal advocacy group Friends of Animals, Colorado office.