A Closer Look At The Salt River Horses Agreement

Published: Tuesday, January 2, 2018 - 2:03pm
Updated: Friday, January 5, 2018 - 8:47pm
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(Photo by StarsApart - CC BY 2.0)
Horses on the Salt River in Arizona.

About 100 wild horses once at risk of being rounded up and auctioned off will now be formally protected. After years of controversy, Arizona has reached a deal with the federal government to manage the herd known as the Salt River horses.

State records show they've been here since about 1890, although an Arizona-based nonprofit group thinks the horses have been around much longer. They've historically lived around the lower Salt River and Saguaro Lake east of Phoenix.

Mark Killian is director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture. He joins KJZZ's Christina Estes to talk about the agreement and how we got here.

MARK: A couple of years ago the U.S. Forest Service decided to move some of the horses off of the Salt River and as a result of that there was quite a public outcry and the governor indicated that he didn't want any of the horses to go to slaughter.

So the Forest Service stopped the roundup and then the Arizona legislature passed a bill that authorized the Department of Agriculture to enter into agreement with the Forest Service to manage the Salt River horse herd. And that's why we're here today.

CHRISTINA: Tell me what the agreement means.

MARK: What the agreement does is it sets a plan in place where the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service will work with the public and third party entities to come up with a management plan for the horses. And to go forward, as you know, we're mostly concerned about the welfare of the horses, their safety.

We've had horses hit by vehicles over there, we've had horses shot, we've had horses starved to death, we've had horses run through some of the old barbed wire fences and then been cut up. And there just needs to be more of a hands-on approach in trying to keep the horses safe and healthy.

CHRISTINA: And my understanding is the federal government is going to pay for a fence and then also reimburse the state for what?

MARK: The federal government's going to rebuild the fence in a number of areas, and I'm hopeful they're going to use smooth wire instead of barbed wire.

And then they're going to work with us and help us. We're going to hire a full time person who will help manage the third party who we will contract with to actually do the hands-on management of the horses on a day-to-day basis.

Our agency, the Departure of Agriculture, will oversee that and make sure that that third-party person fulfills their obligations under the contract.

CHRISTINA: And what does hands-on management mean?

MARK: Hands-on management will be on the ground, making sure that the horses are safe and healthy. Where there are cases where some of the horses may die of old age, removing the carcasses. It will be making sure that the horses and the public interaction is safe.

We've had a couple of instances where people have tried to pat or catch the horses. And that's not a good thing. And so when it comes to preserving the horses and keeping them safe and healthy, you need a hands-on approach to make sure that everything goes well.

CHRISTINA: What kind of timeline do you have for coming into an agreement with a third party and moving forward?

MARK: Well, there's a couple of things. We're going to begin a process with Forest Service and the public to outline what that management plan should be, and when that is finished then we can go out to bid through the state purchasing process to contract with a third party.

So we will do an RFP and encourage all third parties who were interested in bidding on that RFP and can come to the table with the resources and assets necessary in order to help take care of the horses. And when that evaluation is done, a third party will be selected, a contract will be signed and then we will go on down the road. I would imagine that will take somewhere between 12 and 18 months to get that finished.

CHRISTINA: Many times when a state reaches an agreement with the federal government there's sort of a time limit. You know it's not forever, it's one year, three years, five years. What's the case here?

MARK: The case here is pretty open-ended. And because we know it's going to take some time and we want to do it right, we didn't put any artificial timelines on ourselves because we want to make sure that we take care of these horses and we do it the right way.

And so we'll continue this process and we look forward to working with the public. As you know, the public is deeply concerned about the welfare of the horses and we want to make sure that we we take their concerns but we also have to be concerned about the environment that those horses live in and that we are respecting those environments.

We have to be in accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act. We have to make sure that the right pairing areas are protected. And most importantly we need to make sure that there's enough food out there for those horses, particularly during the dry season. So there's a lot of things that we have to look at to make sure that those horses are protected and safe and that they can survive.

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