Chuck enjoys traveling and, over the years, has had the opportunity to visit many fascinating places in the U.S. and the world.
How I Learned About Mustangs on a Family Tubing Trip on Arizona's Salt River
It was Sunday, September 11th, 2016, when I rounded a bend on the trail above the river and saw, in a small cove across the river, eight horses in the water drinking from the river.
My wife had seen pictures and videos on the internet of people floating down the Salt River in large inner tubes. Tubing, as it is called, in the Salt River is a popular pastime during the hot summers in Phoenix, Arizona. On weekends, the river is crowded with people floating down the river in large tire tubes, kayaks, and other floatable craft. Activity on the river surges in September when school starts at nearby Arizona State University.
My wife was anxious to try tubing. She also wanted pictures, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to float in an inner tube in an often swift-flowing river while trying to take pictures at the same time. I had visions of my camera and iPhone ending up in the river. So my wife and one of our adult sons took off in their inner tubes while I followed along the bank taking pictures.
I Spied Some Wild Horses in the Salt River
After hiking about a mile in near hundred degree midday heat I noticed the group of horses in the cove across the river. I had heard somewhere that some wild horses were running free in the Tonto National Forest in northeastern Mesa, Arizona.
Driving along N. Bush Highway toward the Pebble Beach Recreation Area where my wife and son launched their tubes I saw roadside signs alerting drivers to watch out for horses crossing the road. But I never expected to encounter and take pictures of wild horses.
Horses Originated in North America but Later Died Out Due to Climate Change
Fossil records indicate that horses originated in North America about four million years ago and then spread to Europe and Asia while the three continents were still connected. Geologic change later resulted in the continents separating, leaving North and South America separated by oceans from the other continents.
Horses continued to survive in North America following the breakup of the continents. For a while, they were even able to continue crossing into Asia via the land bridge across the Bering Strait that once connected Alaska with Siberia continued to exist for a time after the breakup of the continents.
Ancient humans also used the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska to migrate into and populate North and South America. According to scientists, humans began transversing the land bridge across the Bering Strait toward the end of the Pleistocene Era about 12,000 years ago.
This was an era of global cooling which resulted in the extinction of some species due to food supplies declining as a result of the increasingly cold climate. Many scientists believe that the cooling hit the horses with a double whammy as their numbers were thinned, first by a declining food supply and second by the increasing numbers of humans arriving in search of food and seeing horses as a good source of meat. The combination of declining food supplies and overhunting led to the extinction of horses in North America.
Legal Status of Wild Horses Depends on if They're Considered Native or Non-Native
Normally the story of events in the life of horses that occurred eons ago in prehistoric times would have little to do with wild horses enjoying life in a wilderness preserve just outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
However, quirks in environmental law may be the key to the survival of the wild horses along the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest in north-east Mesa, Arizona as well the survival of wild horses in other parts of the American West. Similar to the debates surrounding immigration policy, the fate of wild horses depends upon whether or not they are considered a native species.
Law and regulations, especially Federal law in this case since Federal lands are involved, concerning the protection of animal and plant wildlife tends to favor native plant and animal species over non-native species. As a result threatened native species are more likely to be given legal protection while non-native or invasive species are likely to face policies designed to eradicate them especially when they threaten native species or pose threats to humans. Threats to humans include being a nuisance and/or posing an economic threat to property values.
Early Spanish Explorers Brought Horses Back to North America
Following their extinction in North America 12,000 years ago, it was almost ten millennia before Spanish explorers and missionaries began bringing horses back to North America in the 16th century.
Some of these escaped captivity and began roaming freely in the vast open spaces of the American West. Known as mustangs, a term derived from the Spanish word mustengo meaning ownerless beast, these descendants of the original Spanish horses have roamed the American West, along with other horses that escaped captivity and joined with them.
In the vast open lands of the West, these wild horses went largely unnoticed.
However, as large migrations of settlers began moving into the west in the nineteenth century the mustangs found themselves in competition for resources. Fences began limiting the amount of open range where the horses lived. Worse, in the areas of open range the wild horses found themselves in competition with cattle for grazing areas.
The cattle were domestic creatures whose owners earned their living raising and selling them to be processed into food for the growing human population in the eastern U.S. while the mustangs were of no economic value. Thus, like some other wildlife whose existence interfered with domestic agriculture, wild horses were considered a menace that needed to be eliminated. Thousands of wild horses were slaughtered during the last half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries.
Changing Economy of West Helps to Save Wild Horses
Times change and as the nation became wealthier and the American West more settled and accessible to Americans living in the east, opposition to the killing of wild horses appeared and grew.
The conservation movement that began in the later part of the nineteenth century influenced many to support the preservation of wild and unsettled areas of the West. National Parks, National Forests and other lands owned and managed by the Federal Government resulted in millions of acres of western lands being preserved in a wild state. Animals, including wild horses, that lived in the lands preserved by the Federal Government, survived and multiplied
Many people living in the eastern part of the nation learned of the rugged beauty of the West and its wildlife first through drawings and paintings of artists who had ventured west and whose paintings and drawings began appearing in magazines. Writers, photographers and movie makers added to the public’s interest in the American West.
Tourists soon followed and finally, in the last decades of the Twentieth Century there was a large migration of people from eastern states to western states.
Tourism, combined with growing cities populated by migrants from other parts of the nation, resulted in a change in the economic and political balance in the west as outdoor recreation interests began clashing with ranching and agriculture which had previously dominated the area’s economy and politics.
Unlike the ranchers who saw wild horses as an economic nuisance that competed with their herds of valuable cattle and other domestic livestock for scarce range land, urban outdoor enthusiasts saw the wild horses as an attraction to be protected.
Salt River Wild Horses Survived by Luck
In the case of the wild horses along the lower Salt River basin in the Tonto National Forest local ranchers had been working to get rid of them since the early years of the 20th Century. However, the wild herds managed to survive mostly because the rugged terrain and dense forest provided shelter for many of them from groups of ranchers trying to hunt them down.
National forests and other lands owned and managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are generally mixed use areas in which private interests such as ranchers using the land for grazing, loggers harvesting timber, etc. as well as other private interests providing services to the growing numbers of public using the area for recreation.
The area in the Tonto National Forest where we have seen the wild horses and have gone tubing on the river has a paved road, paved parking lots, restroom facilities, ramadas and picnic tables. A private company has a store that rents and sells inner tubes and other things for people using the river for recreation including transportation to points up the river where people start traveling on the river and transportation back to their cars at pick up points down river. There is also a ranch in the area that raises horses and rents them for horseback riding.
Wild Horses Are Not the Main Draw for the Southeastern Section of Tonto National Forest
The wild horses, while popular, are not the main draw for most people using the area for recreation. In fact most people are surprised, as we were the first time, to see the wild horses. Signs along the road through the area warn people to watch out for wild horses crossing the road. However, we have never seen any cross the road while driving or even hiking near the road.
Since our first sighting on the first visit when my wife and son went tubing we have returned about five or six times to tube or hike. Each time we have seen the horses but only after a few hours of hiking around different areas along the river.
Plans to Remove Wild Horses From the Tonto National Forest
In 2015, the Forest Service announced plans to remove the wild horses from the Tonto National Forest. Citing a section of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 which allows the government to remove from public lands unauthorized livestock or authorized livestock in excess of that allowed by a grazing permit.
The Forest Service developed a plan to use helicopters to find the horses where they were hiding in the forest and canyons of the area and herd them to places where they could be rounded up and corralled.
Under the law owners would have time to reclaim them before the horses would be auctioned for sale. This rounding up and auctioning off of wild horses on federal lands had occurred in other states in the West. Some of those auctioned in other states had been purchased by individuals or groups seeking to remove the horses to private land where they could continue to live. However, many of those horses had ended up being purchased by meatpacking companies and ended up as dog food.
Conservationists in the area rallied to save the horses. A non-profit group, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG) was formed, a petition on Change.org quickly drew 29,000 signatures, enlisted the help of the Arizona legislature and other activities aimed at protecting the horses.
Wild Horse Supporters Proved Tonto Forest Horses Were Mustangs
The group’s actions included historical research aimed at rebutting the Forest Service’s claim that the Salt River horses were feral horses which in recent decades had either escaped captivity or had been released into the wild by owners who couldn’t afford to keep them rather than mustangs descended from the horses brought over by the Spanish.
Technically both groups of horses are feral (i.e., domesticated animals and their wild offspring that either escape or are released into the wild and revert to wild status).
Just as in some human societies where those who are descended from and inherit the fortunes of wealthy ancestors are deemed to be high status aristocrats while equally wealthy people who earned rather than inheriting their wealth are looked upon as lower status Nouveau riche, horses and burros which are descended from those who were brought to America from Spain and escaped captivity three or four centuries ago are protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, while those whose ancestry only dates back decades are candidates for slaughter.
The group’s efforts were successful. The Salt River Wild Horse Act was passed by the Arizona legislature and signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey in May 2016. This law became the basis for an agreement between the state and the Forest Service which allows for the horses to continue to roam free in the forest while making it illegal for people to harm them.
Managing and Protecting Salt River Wild Horses
A private volunteer organization, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, is charged with overseeing and protecting the horses. Their work includes working with the Forest Service to maintain a safe environment as well as managing the population. Lacking both serious animal predators and other threats there is a danger of the herd multiplying beyond sustainable limits.
Rather than culling the herd through hunting as is done with some other wild species, the group utilizes a tested form of birth control for horses known as PZP (Porcine Zona Pelucida) immuno-contraception which is a drug administered by a dart shot from a distance. PZP prevents, for one year a mare’s egg from fertilizing following mating but has no other effect on the mare’s health or ability to conceive after a year.
Visiting Tonto National Forest and Viewing the Wild Horses
The area is a Federal Fee area and cars parked in the area and not showing a pass in the window are subject to a stiff fine.
Passes can be purchased at certain outdoor stores in nearby Mesa. Annual, Senior, Military or other valid National Park passes can be used here and in most other Federal recreation areas in lieu of day passes.
Encountering the horses is a matter of chance. We have visited the area four or five times in the past couple of years and have been fortunate to encounter a half a dozen or more horses each time. However, this has involved a few hours of hiking around different areas along the river near N Bush Rd.
The horses tend to ignore humans, preferring to focus on their grazing making it easy to take pictures of them.
We keep a distance of at least ten to fifteen feet or more but I have seen people get closer and even try to pet them. This is not a good idea as these are wild animals. Usually when people do get too close the horses simply start moving away.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2018 Chuck Nugent