The Wild Horse Conspiracy

Report on Salt River Ecosystem, Tonto National Forest, Arizona, with focus on wild horses

Report on Salt River Ecosystem, Tonto National Forest, Arizona, with focus on wild horses
By Craig C. Downer, Wildlife Ecologist, P.O. Box 456, Minden, NV 89423 USA
For Friends of Animals, Darien, CT. Attn: Priscilla Feral, President; Michael Harris & Jennifer Barnes, legal.
Salt River interview with Tonto NF ranger Chandler K Mundy

Salt River Ecological Evaluation Comparison Chart Table 1
October 19, 2015
As a follow-up investigation from my fall 2012 field study of the lower Salt River ecosystem and wild horse herd (Downer 2012), I returned to do a more ambitious project from September 9 to 15, 2015. During a full week, I surveyed a more extensive area travelling into the Four Peaks Wilderness and clear to Roosevelt Lake then looped down on the Apache Trail road gaining spectacular overviews of the Salt River and its hydrographic basin. My return was prompted by a July 2015 announcement by Tonto National Forest (TNF) that authorities would be impounding all of the Salt River wild horses as stray livestock and auctioning them off to the public, including kill buyers. This outraged thousands of people who knew about and appreciated this small herd of ca. 100 individuals. Many of these people had been observing the wild horses most or all of their lives and realized that they and their home ranges qualified for protection as a USFS Wild Horse Territory under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act of 1971. Due in large part to their protest and to legal suits, including by Friends of Animals, Respect for Horses and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG), TNF Superintendent Neil Bosworth withdrew this agency’s plans to remove the Salt River wild horses at least for a period of 120 days, at which point a final determination would be made. In order to achieve a truly fair and just decision that honors the rightful place and positive role of the Salt River wild horses, the present investigation and report has been made.
In addition to field observations and literature search, this study employed the ecological evaluation form and methods that are described in a manual published by BLM’s National Science and Technology Center (Pellant et al, 2005). This practical document describes how to rate three major attributes of ecological health: Soil/Site Stability, Hydrological (water-related) Function, and Biotic Integrity (life community). These attribute ratings indicate the degree of “departure from expected levels” for each of 17 indicators on the field evaluation sheet. These indicators are averaged in order to place each attribute into one of the following categories:

None to Slight (N-S),
Slight to Moderate (S-M),
Moderate (M),
Moderate to Extreme (M-E), and
Extreme to Total (E-T).

In the present report, I share the results of 18 ecological evaluations that I performed and interpret these evaluations as concerns both the short- and long-term well-functioning of this unique part of the Sonoran desert and its riparian and river ecosystem, with particular relation to its wild horses.
Location of Study
Except for a few contrasting ecological evaluations, the study took place in the Lower Salt River Recreation Area within the TNF. The lower and southern end of my evaluations are near the Granite Reef recreation site located 7.5 miles north of U.S. Highway 60 in the city of Mesa (part of greater Phoenix) on highway FR 204. FR 204 is commonly known as the Bush Highway and connects to the north with Arizona Highway 87, known as the Beeline (see map).
Major sites at which my assistant (filmmaker Tom Porter) and I performed Ecological Evaluations (EE) are, starting south and moving north:
Granite Reef (EE #14),
Phon-D-Sutton (EE # 15, 16),
Coon Bluff (EE #11, 12, 13, 17, 18),
Goldfield (EE #7),
Blue Point Beach (EE #9),
Water Users (EE #5, 6), and
Pobrecito (“poor little guy” in Spanish) (EE #8).
Additional EEs were performed further to the northeast and at higher elevations:
along the upper Bush Highway (EE #3, 4),
higher up and south of Goldfield recreational site along the Usery Pass Road (EE #10),
in the Four Peaks Wilderness to the north where we camped the first night (EE #1),
and to the southeast when travelling along the Apache Trail road (EE #2).
Five ecological evaluations, more than at any other areas, took place at the Coon Bluff recreation site on the south side of the Salt River. This is where the greatest number of wild horses were observed; and, for this reason, I decided to examine the ecological condition in greater detail here. The evaluations will reveal major disturbance factors by providing contrasting conditions.
According to recent USDA monitoring, this region is in a Moderate Drought ( In spite of this, TNF Supervisor Neil Bosworth and his staff recently decided to grant a renewed cattle grazing permit in the historic Sunflower grazing allotment. This was done in spite of my objection and that of other conservation groups, including Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (see letter of 10/6/15). Those concerned for the future of the Salt River wild horses have 120 days, or until December 18, to work out a plan that is acceptable to the TNF to keep the wild horses in the Salt River ecosystem.
Table 1 summarizes my findings for the 18 ecological evaluations I conducted in September, 2015.
(Excel Spreadsheet attachment, filename: Salt River Ecological Evaluation Comparison Chart Table 1.)
Island in Mid-River Reveals Major Ecological Disturbance Factor In Lower Salt River Recreation Area
The elongated island at Coon Bluff within the Salt River provided strong proof that it is not the wild horses who are degrading the ecosystem, but people. Since many fewer people reach this island, mainly swimmers and rafters, the island did not receive the enormous impact that the south shore and inland area did. This island had an exuberant ecosystem with more abundant vegetation, and more intact soils and water systems. I gave all these three attributes on the island an S-M rating and considered the existing disturbances to be mainly related to the litter and pollution brought by recreationalists as well as to the irregular release of water from the upland dams that stresses such islands, some of which wash away and are not long lasting. Please bear in mind that the wild horses had full use of this island, but were not degrading it.
Summation of Impact Intensities, Wild Horse vs Human with Discussion
The summation of wild horse impact intensities from Table 1 is 54 for all of the 18 ecological evaluations (EEs). Please bear in mind that most of the wild horse impacts are positive contributions to the ecosystem. For example, when they eat the river grass the prevent stagnation and bolster the riverine ecosystem, similar to hippopotami in Africa, and when they move inland to the relatively stark and less productive, but none-the-less biodiverse and fascinating Sonoran desert hills and mesas, their feces constitute a significant contribution to the fertility of soils there. However, the highways and fences in many areas thwart this mutualistic transference, or “transport”, of nutrients. (See Downer 2012.) Consequently, I recommend that underpasses and overpasses be provided to facilitate their natural movements. This will ease over-concentrations that are unnatural and being imposed by people.
The summation for human Impact intensities from Table 1 is 133 for the 18 EEs, or 2 & ½ times that of the wild horse intensities. However, in my capacity as an ecologist, I feel that this indicator underestimates the relative impacts of humans versus wild horses in the Salt River ecosystem. Here TNF officials estimate that only ca. 100 wild horses remain. According to Tonto NF officials, 65 was the actual count of individuals in July 2015 and even 100 is far below a long-term viable population level for an equid species (Duncan 1992, Moehlman 2002, Downer 2014 c).
Hardly any previous planning and provision of resources by either the TNF or the state of Arizona for the Salt River hydrographic basin as a wild-horse-containing ecosystem has been made. The quick dismissal of any rights of the wild horses here under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 by authorities is tendentious and reflects a generally negative attitude toward these amazing animals. The Salt River mustangs contribute beneficially to their life community, including to the thousands of recreationalists visiting annually. These horses constitute a great aesthetic value, one widely recognized, locally, nationally, and even internationally.
Harmonizing with this sense of the horses’ beauty are major contributions wild horses make to ecosystems in which they fill an important niche. But they must be given adequate space and allowed to naturally adapt in order to realize these contributions. The following is a rundown of some of the most salient of these.
Ecology of Wild Horses (Downer 2014, a, b & c)
Wild horses complement an ecosystem in many direct and obvious as well as more subtle ways when permitted their natural freedom to move and interrelate over a sufficiently extensive intact habitat and time period.
Like rhinos and tapirs, equids possess a caecal, or post-gastric, digestive system. This enables equids to take advantage of coarser, drier vegetation through symbiotic microbial activity that breaks down cellulose cell walls to derive sufficient nutrients, including vital proteins, from the inner cell without overtaxing their metabolism. In drier regions, this can give equids a distinct advantage over most ruminants. (See Bell 1970, Grzimek 2004, MacDonald 2001.)
Consumption by equids of coarser, drier vegetation can greatly benefit sympatric, pre-gastric (ruminant) herbivores, and energize and enrich the ecosystem as a whole. By recycling chiefly the coarse, dry grasses as well as other dry, withered herbs, forbs and bush foliage, horses, burros, and zebras expose the seedlings of many diverse species to more sun, water and air, thus permitting them to flourish. The latter can then be consumed by ruminants (Bell 1970).
Of great importance is the contribution by wild equids of significant quantities of partially degraded vegetation in the form of feces deposited on the land. These droppings provide fodder for myriad soil microorganisms; the resulting fecal decomposition builds the humus component of soils, lending ecologically valuable texture and cohesiveness. As feces slowly decompose, they gradually release their nutrients over all seasons and, thus, feed the fungal garden that exists in soils, thereby increasing the soil’s absorption of water – that vital limiting factor in semi-arid and arid regions.
Equid feces lend more sustenance to decomposers and food webs that involve mutually sustaining exchanges among all classes of organisms. The latter include many diverse insects, birds, rodents, reptiles, etc. This could help bolster many native species in Arizona.
The less degraded feces of equids contain many more seeds that are intact and capable of germination and from many more types/species of plants when compared with ruminant grazers. Thus, the horses’ wide-ranging life styles can greatly assist many plants, including Arizonan natives, in dispersing far and wide and, so, in filling their respective ecological niches. This enriches the food web and allows a greater diversity of animal species, including Arizonan natives.
Horses aid myriad plant and animal species by their physical actions. As an example, breaking of ice with their hooves during winter freezes allows other animals to access forage and water. Many of these would otherwise perish. Similarly, they open trails in heavy snow or through heavy brush, allowing smaller animals to move about in search of food, water, mineral salts, shelter, warmer areas, mates, etc.
A little-recognized fact is that the wallowing habit of wild equids creates natural ponds whose impacted surfaces become catchments for scant precipitation or summer cloudbursts. These provide a longer-lasting source of water for a wide diversity of plants and animals. This can even help to create an intermittent riparian habitat for desert amphibians and many other desert species in Arizona as elsewhere. Ephemeral plants that quickly flower and set seed, including many composites, are benefited from these catchments – especially valuable in regions with clayey soils. These catchments can benefit amphibians such as Couch’s Spadefoot and Southern Spadefoot which occur in TNF (USDA 2012).
Wild horses also locate water seeps through their keen sense of smell and enlarge these through pawing during critical dry periods of the year, even digging down to the sources at rocky fissures. This allows many other species to access water, species whose individual members would otherwise perish. For these and many other reasons, wild equids should be treated as keystone species that contribute positively in a variety of ecological settings.
Wild horses are natural prey of certain carnivores and omnivores including in Arizona’s mountain lions, red wolves, and bears (cf. Turner et al., 2001).
Wild horses and burros are well suited to life in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. One reason is obvious: their great mobility. With their long limbs and sturdy, single-unit (soliped) hooves, they are made for movement. In such semi-arid or arid regions, this extensive movement is vital for survival. In order to obtain enough forage, a wild horse must often roam over several square miles each day, selecting appropriate plants to prune; reaching a water hole may involve traveling over one-hundred miles round trip in a grazing circuit of two or three days. Wild horses do not generally camp on riparian habitats as do cattle, though in the case of the Salt River, the wild horses have become more dependent upon and adapted to this source of food, shelter, and water. However, their daily and seasonal movements still involve the drier Sonoran desert hills surrounding the Salt River. Indeed, their movement to these areas and deposition of feces benefits the upland soils by transferring soil-building nutrients form this very productive river ecosystem, and this benefit is passed on up through the food chain/web to benefit many diverse species.
During very hot, dry spells, a wild horse band must stay close to water, tanking up every day with approximately ten to twelve gallons for a mature horse. A spring, river or other water source can be shared by several bands. These form an orderly hierarchy for watering should more than one band arrive at a limited source, such as a spring, at the same time, often late in the day. When melting snow or fresh cloudbursts paint the land with ephemeral water sources, wild horses can disperse into areas further away from perennial lakes and streams and to these ephemeral sources. Here they employ their keen sense of smell in detecting even very small and hidden water sources. They can also negotiate rougher, steeper, and rockier terrain than domestic cattle, and prevent flammable vegetation from building up here.
Through a hammer-like hoof action upon the ground, wild equids aid vegetation by pushing seeds firmly into the soil where they may successfully germinate. Their feces also provide a fertile bed for the germination of seeds.
Equids’ post-gastric digestive system does not emit as much gas as is the case with pre-gastric ruminant grazers. This same system permits them to greatly reduce dry, fire-prone vegetation over vast areas without overtaxing their metabolism. Thus, they help to prevent catastrophic fires that global warming, or more to the point, human civilization’s pollution of the atmosphere, is causing (deHaan et al., 2006).
By drying out vegetation and provoking catastrophic fires–rampant in western and southern North America, Australia, and much of the world – the catchall “global climate change” threatens planetary life as we know it. This will especially be the case if global ocean currents stop circulating due to glacial and ice cap melting, etc. Wild equids can greatly help to save the day if allowed to play their own special role in reducing flammable vegetation, in building soils, in seed dispersal, in preventing catastrophic, soil-sterilizing fires, etc. They stand ready to counter imbalances brought on by human civilization and its contamination of the atmosphere, much of which is caused by hordes of domestic livestock (de Haan et al. 2006).
Equid feces build the humus content of soils to a substantial degree. This humus allows soil to gain more texture and retain more water, which dampens out fires; humus promotes more productive and bio-diverse plant and animal communities. Because their feces are not as thoroughly degraded in the gut as those of ruminant grazers, they contribute more to food chains/webs, e.g., dung beetles to birds and lizards to higher trophic predators such as cats and eagles, etc.
Equine feces aid the watershed by creating damper conditions, because the soil particles to which they reduce (micelles) retain more moisture, i.e., more water adheres to the surface area of these particles (Ricklefs 1979). Hence ground water tables are replenished, feeding more seeps and springs more continuously. And upon these springs and seeps, many species of plants and animals depend. Some fire is of benefit to an ecosystem, but fires that over-consume, over-extend, and over-intensify can set the evolution of a terrestrial life community way back and result in a very sterile environment that could take thousands of years of “peace” to recover.
Equids possess both upper & lower incisors that permit them to selectively nip pieces of vegetation such as grass or the leaves of bushes or trees. Major ruminant grazers such as cattle and sheep do not have upper incisors and consequently can and do rip up plants by their roots more frequently with the action of their lower teeth and tongue against their hard upper palates. This often exposes soils to destructive wind and rain erosion, especially when too many of the ruminants are placed upon any given area of land. And wild horses are much more mobile in their daily and seasonal feeding rounds than are cattle.
Equid species diversify and strengthen the community they inhabit in a variety of ways when allowed to achieve population stability over time and when not over-imposed upon by humanity (Donlow et al., 2005; Martin 2005). The process of natural selection must be allowed to operate sufficiently long for this to be the case. Then these equids can and do create a greater variety of environmental conditions that make possible a greater variety of niches that can be occupied by coevolving species. Being large, powerful animals, equids can push their way through thickets of brush to form trails. Specifically, they open thick vegetative understories to light and air, and the more diverse exposures resulting from equine activities create conditions intermediary to the extremes of wind, temperature, and various soil conditions. This physically defines a greater variety of niches fillable by a more diverse array of species.
When allowed to integrate into wilderness, the individual life histories of wild equids come to reflect natural oscillations, such as annual seasons and more long-term cycles. This they do along with the plants and animals that share their habitat. They harmoniously blend over time. As large animals that eat relatively large quantities especially of fibrous vegetation and disperse their grazing and browsing activity over broad areas as semi-nomads, equids can become the harvesters and the renewers over vast ecosystems, true to their keystone role (Duncan 1992, Grzimek 2004, MacDonald 2001). Their cropping of vegetation, often dry and coarse, reduces the possibility for major, soil-sterilizing fires. This cropping sparks vegetative renewal, the re-budding of new and tender shoots of greater nutritional value, especially to ruminants whose digestive and metabolic systems are over-taxed by the coarse, dry vegetation that equids can better handle. And thus the overall productivity of the land is annually increased, as studies prove (Fahnestock and Detling 1999 a & b).
Natural Self-Stabilization of Population and Reserve Design (Downer 2010, 2014 a & c)
Wild horses form tight-knit stallion- and elder-mare-governed bands. Over time, each band searches out and establishes its own home range, which may cover hundreds of square miles on an annual basis in drier regions (Berger 1986). The ecological mosaic that results among all such particular band home ranges in a given area prevents over-crowding and overgrazing. Once available habitat is filled, the horse, as a climax species, limits its own population as density-dependent controls are triggered.
In the immediate future, true wild-equid-containing sanctuaries need to be established. Here livestock and other nature-exploiting activities should be excluded or at least greatly minimized and wild equids allowed to establish viable populations in the thousands of individuals (Duncan 1992). These fairly populated sanctuaries will provide for herds that are viable in the long-term. They will preserve the vigor of the horses and burros they were designed to conserve, true to the pure intent of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act (Animal Welfare Institute 2007, Germaine 2009).
Employing principles of Reserve Design, the following directives will serve as guides to achieve the above goals:
(a) Allow each wild equid herd to fully fill its ecological niche space within each given area bounded by natural or where necessary artificial barriers, and by buffer zones. Then allow each specific herd to self-stabilize, or auto-regulate, its population, within this area. Such auto-regulation can happen if we humans allow. Equids are “climax species,” which is to say, members of the “climax successional sere,” or stage, and do not expand out of control to destroy their habitat and ultimately themselves, as their prejudiced enemies contend. Each band within a herd population is usually governed by a lead stallion (patron). He watches out for and defends the band and does most of the breeding. A usually older, lead mare also aids in this role. This mare is very wise as to where the best foraging, watering, mineral procurement, sheltering areas, etc., are located. She leads the band along paths uniting these habitat components, which include longer seasonal migratory routes between higher summering and lower wintering habitats. Both patron and lead mare socially inhibit reproduction among younger members of their band. As resources become limiting, physiological and social responses result in decreased reproduction in any given band or herd (Rogovin and Moshkin 2007, Sussman 2008).
(b) Employ natural barriers where possible, or, where such do not exist, semi-permeable, artificial barriers, where necessary, in designing each wild horse sanctuary.
(c) Design and employ buffer zones around the wild horse sanctuaries. Here a gradual tapering off of wild horse presence would occur through the implementation of discouragements to their transiting into areas where danger exists for them, such as in farms or cities. This may involve the use of what wildlife managers term “adverse conditioning” as well as “positive reinforcement”. Also employ underpasses or preferably overpasses where roads impede the natural movements of the wild horses.
(d) In order to realize healthy, balanced wild-horse-containing ecosystems, as full a complement of plant and animal species as possible should be allowed. Wherever possible, this should include large carnivores/omnivores native to the region in question, such as the puma, or mountain lion, and the red wolf. These will provide an additional limitation on wild horse populations (also wild burro), one that will act through natural selection to make any given population more fit for survival in the wild and more harmoniously adapted to its particular ecosystem.
Important Ecological Considerations that need more attention from TNF
A major factor that should be thoroughly taken into account concerns the prevalence of cattle on the northern side of the Salt River. These are owned by the Indian Reservation, including the Pima Maricopa tribe; and they cross over the Salt River to forage on Tonto National Forest lands. As described in my earlier report on the lower Salt River ecosystem and its wild horses (Downer 2012), these cattle are having a very damaging effect on the ecosystem together with the poorly maintained, broken- down barbed wire fences constructed to contain them. Of course, such fences are very difficult to maintain given the erratic dam releases of water, or river flows. When these flows are high, they literally scour the terrain and readily uproot fence posts, except those strongly and deeply anchored. The tangle of barbed wire intertwined with riparian vegetation constitutes a serious hazard for many species, including horses, deer, beaver, muskrats, and many bird species, as well as us humans. These barbed-wire, sharp stake, and other menaces should be removed in order to curtail further mayhem, suffering and death.
One contribution river flows make to the Salt River ecosystem concerns silt deposition. Silt can be quite nutrient-rich and provide fertile germination beds for a variety of plant species. However, when the flows that are released by the up-river dams become rapid and violent, they can and do scour away these fertile germination beds, especially in the river’s faster flowing, upper reaches. Consequently, much of the Salt River plain has become primary in its successional state, or sere. As an ecologist, I recommend that agreements be established with the appropriate authorities, state or federal, to reduce the violent scouring of the river plain, particularly at higher levels. This will allow for more permanent, stable, complex, and biodiverse riverine ecosystems along the Salt River. Obviously, the age of soils is a major factor contributing to their ecological value. As with any living organism, soil as a vital component of the life community needs time to develop (Brady, 1974; Ricklefs, 1979).
Claims by Tonto National Forest Officials with my Responses [in brackets]
Although my conversation of 9/30/15 with Chandler K. Mundy, Ranger for Tonto National Forest Mesa Ranger District, indicated that the Salt River wild horses were reproducing and spreading at an alarming rate, my examination of this claim indicates something amiss. What I found was that the wild horses have been subject to intensive persecution and appear to be recovering their former areas of occupation (Downer 2014 a, search Index for Arizona). And a similar situation has occurred with the wild burros, whose legal area, officially called the Saguaro Wild Burro Territory, unlike that of the wild horses, is recognized by the Tonto National Forest. However, all USFS officials I talked to seemed little concerned that these wild burros have probably disappeared from their legal territory. Closely related burros should be restored to the Saguaro Territory, particularly so considering the critically endangered status of wild burros not only in North America but the world as a whole (Downer 2014 a, pp. 77-79)!
Here I summarize ranger/TNF opinions gathered during my interview with Ranger Mundy (tel. 1-602-225-5251) and related information. [My comments are in brackets.]:

(a) The area being inhabited by wild horses is more or less bounded by Highway 87 (“Beeline highway”) & the Bush Highway (FR 204). (See map.)

(b) There are two big groups, or subpopulations, of wild horses in the TNF:
(1) horses of the lower Salt River and
(2) horses of the Saguaro Lake area.
[Their historical occurrence needs to be documented here and elsewhere.]

(c) The Salt River wild horses display two migratory cycles within the year. During the hot season, July to September, they stay at the Salt River. After the summer monsoons, they range out a few miles into the uplands as the vegetation revitalizes, or “greens up.” As this vegetation is “used up” they then return to the Salt River. And again during the spring, there is another green-up of vegetation that allows them to range inland away from the river. When this vegetation diminishes, the horses again return to the river. [So we see that there is a natural rest-rotation that the wild horses manifest and that should permit recovery of the vegetative community, provided the horses are not overly restricted. Highways and fences are definite hazards for the wild horses impeding this harmonious migration.]
(d) Basically wild horses occupy ca. 16 miles along the Salt River beginning lower down at the Granite Reef Dam & going upriver to Saguaro Lake. But they are extending their range upriver into the Goldfield area. Last year they were noted at Butcher Jones recreation area on the north bank of Saguaro Lake.

(e) Butcher Jones beach has had three recent tests for water purity, all showing high levels of E. coli.
Ranger Mundy blames this on the wild horses. I told him it was more likely from people and their pets, as horse droppings are much cleaner as far as this and other pathogens goes. Nonetheless, he was adamant that it was the horses “pooping in the water” and said this beach was being closed to recreational use now until the situation improved. [An independent investigation is needed here.]
(f) Tonto National Forest staff undertook an aerial census of Salt River’s wild horses during July, 2015, and counted 65 individual horses. From this, they then estimated there were ca. 100 wild horses in total. [This population level is extremely low and non-viable, genetically speaking (Duncan 1992). I could request a LightHawk-aided census & habitat evaluation flight, such as I have done several times.]
(g) The officially established Saguaro Wild Burro Territory occurs higher up in the Tonto National Forest, but no burros have been observed here for the past ten years. Ranger Mundy claimed that probably there never were very many. He also stated that burros are not as hardy as wild horses. [This is very doubtful, since burros are very adaptive to arid deserts.] He admitted there may be a few secretive burros surviving. When I asked him about illegal capture, removal, and/or killing of the burros, he said this was possible, but noted that coyotes & mountain lions also kill them. [These predators also kill wild horses (Turner and Morrison 2001). Also, an alarming increase in illegal captures, removals, and killings of wild horses and burros has occurred in recent years (Downer 2014 a, Fuller 2009, Germaine 2009, MacDonald 2007).]
(h) Ranger Mundy maintained that the Goldfield livestock allotment has not been grazed for a long time and that the Sunflower livestock allotment has not been grazed since 2002. The latter is 40 miles long and located on the south end of the TNF near the river and on the upper side of Saguaro Lake. He noted that this allotment is in the process of reallocation for cattle grazing, but that, if authorized, this grazing will still not be permitted along the Salt River, only in the uplands. [Though I received a recognition of my objection to its reauthorization from TNF supervisor Neil Bosworth in a letter dated 8/21/2015, a more recent letter dated October 6, 2015, and that I received from Bosworth revealed that he had reauthorized the Sunflower cattle grazing allotment without answering my key points of objection. His letter states that no further recourse is available (see enclosed letters).]

(i) The Goldfield allotment covering much of the Lower Salt River area has been closed to cattle since the 1980’s. This occurs on the TNF side of the river. [However, my assistant and I observed considerable trespass livestock crossing the river either from the Pima-Maricopa reservation or from other ranchers including those on the south side of the river. These cattle forage in this “closed-to-cattle” area.]

(j) The Lower Salt River below Saguaro Lake is one of the most intensely used recreation areas of all America’s national forests and is where the wild horses have been concentrated. [This concentration seems to be deliberate on the part of TNF and other state and local agencies.]

(k) There has long been and continues to exist a serious littering problem with a multitude of plastic, tin and aluminum cans, clothes, toys, picnic items, food, oil and gas, firewood and charcoal, and other forms of waste being discarded by visitors. Though illegal, the enormity of the problem makes it hard to control, i.e. government employees cannot monitor people 100% of the time coupled with a general disregard for littering laws. [There needs to be more vigorous law enforcement!]

(l) The Salt River is the legal boundary between the Tonto National Forest & the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. This boundary is generally unfenced. However, a greater frequency of fences occurs in the uplands. The other reservation influencing the wild horses and their habitat is the Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian Reservation. Both have maps on their websites. [Our team observed much derelict, barbed-wire fences clear to the edge of the main course of the river and that this was causing injury to the wild horses and other wildlife, even death. Broken down fences remain along the boundaries of the old grazing allotment (see also Downer 2012).] According to Ranger Mundy, the long-term goal of TNS is to remove the hazardous fences. [However, most of these should be removed immediately and those deemed necessary for safety and other reasons reconstructed in such a way that does not harm wildlife, including wild horses. Provisions for the ample movement of wild horses and other wildlife should be made, so they will not continue to walk, run, swim, fly, and fall into death traps caused by human constructions, roads, fences, etc. Fences are often along roads and highways; and their obvious intention was to prevent vehicle collisions with animals as well as humans. The construction of overpasses and underpasses should be planned and implemented so as to avoid reoccurring accidents, suffering and death, mainly to wildlife, but also to humans. This is an urgent situation, and its solution must not be put off! Horses and other wildlife and even people are at stake.]

(m) The Southwestern Region of the US Forest Service has yet to complete its TEUI environmental description of the area where Salt River occurs. This report should be out in four to five years. Its delay is due to greater emphasis being placed by the USFS on areas used for timber harvest or livestock grazing (Mundy’s statement). [Obviously it seems that much greater attention should be paid to an area that receives one of the highest levels of recreational intensity among all of our national forests!]
(n) Bird hunting and fishing occur along the Salt River, but there are not many deer and no bighorn sheep here. Ranger Mundy doubts that much trapping occurs, though river otters occur near Bartlett [Dam just to the north on the Verde River which adjoins the lower Salt River in our area of study], but are not reported on the Salt River.
(o) Pets are allowed for recreationalists, but must be leashed. [However, I did observe at least a few unleashed pets during my recent week in and around the Lower Salt River area, as well as three years before (Downer 2012).]
(p) The Salt River Project (SRP) manages flows from the dams controlling water in the Salt River. [Sometimes the flows are very low at other times very high depending on demand and storm activity. This arrangement wreaks havoc with the Salt River ecosystem. There should be a guaranteed regularity of flows with minimums and maximums allowable in order to prevent harmful disruption of the ecosystem, its wildlife species, including the wild horses. The natural plants and animals are much more attuned to this unique ecosystem’s life-sustaining processes, and we people should learn from them.]
(q) According to Ranger Mundy, historical documents indicate that all of the Salt River wild horses were claimed by the Pima-Maricopa tribe in 1971 & that, as a result, these horses do not qualify as legal “wild horses.” [I told him this was not so, as many witnesses attest to the unbranded, unmanaged wild horses’ presence outside the reservation in 1971 at the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (critical criteria for wild horse/burro territory designation) and that it was one thing to merely claim the horses and quite another to prove this claim, i.e. as through branding, registry, etc. (see Downer 2014 a, pp. xii-xiii).] This Native American reservation raises cattle & horses & has for generations past. Ranger Mundy maintained that one old document shows zero wild horses occurring along the Salt River in 1976 and that according to another document the horses have greatly increased & expanded since the 1990s when they were estimated at only 10 to 15 individuals. [His voice took on a tone of alarm on this point, as though this were something totally outrageous. It was apparent he had little appreciation of this herd’s historical value and strong Spanish mustang heritage, dating back five centuries, as SRWHMG, Respect 4 Horses, and other groups and individuals have substantiated. He also made no mention of the horse species proven status as a North American native species (Downer 2014 a & c).]
(r) The ranger suggested that I get a detailed TNF map from the front desk or from the AVENZA website & that I go onto the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community and Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian Reservation websites for further information. [I learned from the front desk at his Mesa office that the Tonto National Forest Visitor Map will not be again available in print until November 2015, but can be accessed and printed by going onto AVENZA website. It is available as two parts: the North sector and the South Sector. A recreation map is available to the public.]
He said to call him back if I had further questions.
Suspect Claims about Wild Horse Population Growth
As for the common claims, often uncritically repeated by USFS and BLM officials, that the wild horses double in population size every four to five years and commonly display a 20-25% annual rate of herd increase, these are contradicted by factual observations. First, there are the frequent shootings by people that have been occurring in the TNF this year; and these gruesome events must be seriously addressed – and immediately! (Ranger Mundy just informed me [10/19/15] that the criminals who just shot “Dottie” the beloved mare with a shotgun had not yet been tracked down.] From my past experience as a field investigator for animal organizations, I realize that those incidents that come to the light of public attention are usually only a small fraction of those perpetrated. In this regard, I am particularly concerned with the close proximity of the Mexican border to the Lower Salt River area, since Mexico receives most of the horses from the United States that end up being slaughtered, nearly all of the rest going to Canada. The Mexican figure is ca. 120,000 for 2014 (source: Animals Angels). The sheer cruelty involved with this large-scale capture, confinement, transport, and slaughter is intolerable!
Here I quote an updated passage from my revised book as concerns the inflated rates of increase of wild horses claimed by government officials (Downer 2014 a, p. 210):
A critique of BLM’s use of the 20% rate of herd increase was presented to the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board on April 14, 2014. This was an analysis of FOIA-obtained wild horse population roundup data for four herds: Calico (12/2009-1/2010), Twin Peaks (8-9/2010), Triple B (7-8/2011), and High Rock-Fox (10-11/2011). Of the 5,873 wild horses who survived these roundups, there were 1,167 foals (19.87% of total population) but only 606 yearlings (10.32%). This indicates that half of the foals died before reaching one year of age. An analysis of burros captured in Twin Peaks HMA (9-10/2010) indicated that 11 of 26 foals died before reaching one year of age. Given 161 wild burros captured, a rate of increase of only 6.8% is obtained. When an average minimum adult mortality rate of 5% is added into the equation (National Research Council 1982), we obtain a substantially lower annual rate of herd increase both for wild horse and wild burros, namely 5% for horses based on all four herds: and 2% for burros based on the Twin Peaks herd (full reports obtainable from author). This is a far cry from the 20% that BLM typically uses across the West to foment its “create-a-crisis” mentality in Congress and among those of the public who are gullible enough to believe this. In substantiation, Wolf (1980) did a paper based on observations in twelve HMAs over a period of two to five years. He calculated increases of less than two percent (2%), with first year survival rates of 50 to 70%. To again underline: BLM’s blanketing use of 20% or even higher annual herd increase is impossible given a scientifically and mathematically based analysis and long-term view of these “climax,” restored Native North American species. Also consider that in nature and among most species, the rule is that large percentages of deaths occur among the very young and old. (See by D. Coffey.) [End quote.]
We should bear in mind that the Salt River as well as the Tonto National Forest and surrounding habitats are extremely arid, or xeric, largely falling in the Sonoran Desert life zone, one of the harshest and most inhospitable places for life on Earth. During the week my assistant and I were there, high temperatures varied from upper 90’s to over 110 degrees F. and we could well appreciate why so many animals, including birds and wild horses, rested in the shade of bushes and trees during the hours of intense mid-day sun. Many of these were most active during the crepuscular hours; and on my last day there, I observed the large pinkish roan stallion known as “Pink Floyd” immersing all of his body except the tip of his nose to cool off (see photos).
Resources are scarce in this desert ecosystem; and it is Salt River’s nutrient-rich waters which provide a great portion of the photosynthetic productivity that sustains the ecosystem in its immediate vicinity. As the saying goes: “water is the lifeblood of the desert,” and this is even truer here in the Sonoran “hot” or “true” desert that receives less than 6 inches of precipitation per year (Leopold et al. 1961). Here the struggle to survive is intensified for all species of plants and animals, and mortality rates are commonly high, especially for newborn or juveniles, but also for adults.
For this and other reasons, I am strongly opposed to the blanketing use of PZP or other forms of sterilization or semi-sterilization on the relatively few wild horses who remain in and around Salt River. Their population is not even near a genetically viable level (Duncan 1992, Moehlman 2002); and to interfere with the mares’ reproductive physiology and consequently with the pervasive, naturally adapted social structure of this greatly diminished herd would devastate its future prospects for survival Nunez et al. 2009, Nunez 2009, Ransom et al. 2010, Sadleir 1969). Given all the other mortality factors operating in the TNF, including venomous rattlers* (Arizona is the evolutionary center for rattlesnake evolution), mosquitoes and biting flies including those bearing infectious diseases, an accumulation of barbed wire, harmful metal fence posts, and deliberately placed snares, as well as excalating illegal captures and shootings by humans – this tampering with the wild horses’ ability to reproduce could prove the final straw that sends them into ultimate decline and demise.
These beautiful animals are in no way overpopulated. Objectively speaking, they are quite underpopulated. They are not the cause of ecological and related social problems that exist in this area – rather very much the opposite! They are life-restoring and uplifting presences, appreciated by many thousands, perhaps even millions of people for whom they greatly improve the experienced quality of life. And they are a deeply rooted, returned North American species that as post-gastric digesters complement the ruminant herbivores such as deer, replenish humus and build soils that are more nutrient-rich and water absorptive, disperse intact, germinable seeds of a great variety and significantly open up the river itself, thus preventing stagnation. And they also greatly reduce the occurrence of catastrophic wildfires, which are growing more serious and extensive in this alarming era of Global Warming in which we live today. In other words, they are our allies, not our enemies!
*Venomous snakes occurring in the TNF include the Arizona Coral, Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Sidewinder, Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Tiger Rattlesnake, Arizona Black Rattlesnake, Mojave Rattlesnake, and Speckled Rattlesnake. The Western Diamondback and the Black-tailed rattlesnake species are both common in riparian as well as upland habitats (USDA 2012).
A Final Plea and Practical Recommendation concerning an imminent El Nino
Authorities should pay serious attention to all the many voices that support the wild horses of the Lower Salt River, Tonto National Forest, and vicinity. Recalling the injustice Arizona’s wild horses have already experienced, including being denied the great majority of their legal USFS and BLM land (Downer 2014, pp. 84-85), actions must now be taken to preserve and even restore these special herds.
The El Nino climatic event that is forecast to hit the southwestern United States later this fall and on into winter will be the third strongest on record. The increased precipitation it brings will result in increased growth of vegetation; and wild horses and burros will be much needed in order to prevent catastrophic wildfires after much of this vegetation dries out during the drier months of the year. (See
I leave you with one final quote from an encyclopedia of animals (MacDonald, D. 2001, p. 468):

HERDS OF HORSES, ASSES, OR ZEBRAS … capture the imagination like few other sights. They conjure up an impression of power and grace, wildness and freedom. Yet such scenes may soon become mere memories, if the conservation initiatives that have been implemented to stabilize precarious equid populations are not taken further. Moreover, by preserving the landscapes that wild equids inhabit, these conservation efforts are also benefiting numerous other threatened species that share the equids’ ecosystems. [Dr. Daniel I. Rubenstein, Princeton University.]







Bibliography (cited & additional germane sources)
Animal Welfare Institute. 2007. Managing for Extinction: Shortcomings of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program. Animal Welfare Institute, Washington, D.C.

Bell, R.H.V. 1970. The use of the herb layer by grazing ungulates in the Serengeti. In: Animal Populations in Relation to their Food Source. British Ecological Society Symposium. Ed. Adam Watson. Blackwell Science Publications, Oxford, UK.

Berger, J. 1986. Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size. University of Chicago Press.

Brady, N.C. 1974. Nature and Property of Soils, 8th Ed. Macmillan, New York.

Clotten, Peter. 2009. Der Letzte Mustang. Muller Ruschlikon Verlag. Stutgart, Germany. Photos by Tony Stromberg. [In German.]

DeHaan C., H. Steinfeld, M. Rosales, P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel. 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.

Donlow, J. et al. 2005. Rewilding North America. Nature 436 (7053): 913-914.

Downer, C.C. 1987. Overgrazing is by humankind. Bulletin of the Theosophy Science Study Group, Vol. 25 (5, 6): 57-60.

Downer, C.C. 2005 (Dec.). Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros of North America: Factual and Sensitive Statement – How They Help the Ecosystem. Natural Horse 7(3): 10-11.

Downer, C.C. 2010 (Sept.-Oct.). Proposal for Wild Horse/Burro Reserve Design as a Solution to Present Crisis. Natural Horse 12(5): 26-27.
Downer, C.C. 2012. Ecological Report on Salt River (AZ) Wild Horse Herd & Associated Ecosystem. For Respect for Horses, Chino Valley, AZ. Available on

Downer, C.C. 2014 a. The Wild Horse Conspiracy. Also available at and

Downer, C.C. 2014 b. “Wild Horse Ecology,” a poster presented at the annual conference of the Ecological Society of Australia in Alice Springs, South Australia. September 28-October 3, 2014.

Downer, C.C. 2014 c. The horse and burro as positively contributing returned natives in North America. American Journal of Life Sciences 2014; 2(1): 5-23. Available online
( doi: 10.11648/j.ajls.20140201.12

Duncan, P. 1992. Zebras, Asses, and Horses: An Action Plan for the Conservation of Wild Equids. IUCN Species Survival Commission, Equid Specialist Group. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Gland, Switzerland.

Fahnestock, J.T. and J.K. Detling. 1999 a. The influence of herbivory on plant cover and species composition in the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. Plant Ecology; 144: 145-157.
Fahnestock, J.T. and J.K. Detling. 1999 b. Plant responses to defoliation and resource supplementation in the Pryor Mountains. J. Range Management; 52: 263-270.

Forsten, A. Ph.D. 1992. Mitochondrial-DNA timetable and the evolution of Equus: comparison of molecular and paleontological evidence. Ann. Zool. Fennici. 28: 301-309.

Fuller, A. 2009. Spirit of the Shrinking West: Mustangs. National Geographic (Feb.): Pp. 100-117. Reveals many discrepancies between the law and actual treatment of returned native wild horses in N. America.

Germaine, J.A. 2009. Wild Horses: Wild Innocents, A Report on Federal Government Management of America’s Wild Mustangs and Burros, & the Grassroots Campaign to Restore Them to Their Original Habitat & Ecological Niche. Graduate paper of Equine Sciences Dept., Santa Rosa College, Sta. Rosa, CA.

Grzimek, B. 2004. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed. Farmington Mills, Michigan: Gale. See Pp. 141, 220, & esp. 228.

Jones, S.E., Ph.D. 2012 (June). Were There Horses in the Americas before Columbus? Ancient Americas 16(95): 2-3.

Kunzig, R. 2008 (Feb.). Drying of the West. National Geographic. Pp. 90-113.
Leopold, A.S. et al. 1961. The Desert. Life Nature Library. Time, Inc. New York.

MacDonald, C.R. 2007 (July). America’s Mustangs and Burros: What’s Left, The High Costs of Miscalculating, and Will They Survive?

MacDonald, D. 2001. The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press,New York. Hoofed Animals. See pp. 456-458. & Horses, Zebras and Asses, pp. 471-472. (End report quote from p. 468.)

MacFadden, B.J. 1992. Fossil horses: systematics, paleobiology, and evolution of the family Equidae. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

MacPhee, R. Ph.D. 2013. The Wild Horse is Native to North America. Author is Curator, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY. Online at

Martin, P.S., Ph.D. 2005. Twilight of the mammoth: ice age extinction and the rewilding of America. University of California Press, Berkeley CA.
Moehlman, P.D., Editor. 2002. IUCN SSC Equid Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Mullen, F.X., Jr. 2010 (Mar. 21). Wild Horses: Managed wisely or to extinction? Reno Gazette Journal. Pp. 1 ff. Illustrated. Article brings up fairness issue of relative resource allocation, zeroed out herd areas, favoritism to ranchers, low population numbers and their long-term viability, etc.
Nunez, C.M.V. 2009. Management of Wild Horse with Porcine Zona Pellucida: History, Consequences, and Future Strategies. Chapter 4. In: Horses: Biology, Domestication, and Human Interactions. Editor: J.E. Leffhalm. Nova Science Publications.
Nunez, C.M.V., J.S. Adelman, C. Mason, and D.I. Rubenstein. 2009. Immunocontraception decreases group fidelity in a feral horse population during the non-breeding season. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 117: 74-83.

Oelke, H. 1997. Born Survivors on the Eve of Extinction, Can Iberia’s Wild Horse Survive among America’s Mustangs. Wipperfurth, Germany.

Oxley, R. and C. C. Downer. 1994. “Deserts.” In: Nature Worlds. T. Hare, ed. London: MacMillan Reference. See especially illustrated feature p. 116.
Pellant, M; P. Shaver; D.A. Pyke; and J.E. Herrick. 2005. Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health, Version 4. Technical Reference 1734-6. USDI, BLM. National Science Technical Center, Division of Science Integration. P.O. Box 25047, Denver, CO. (Field manual used in Downer’s Salt River 2015 study.)

Quammen, D. 2014 (Mar.). People of the Horse. National Geographic, Pp. 104-121. See esp. “Return of a Native” map with dates.
Ransom, J.I., B.S. Cade, and N.T. Hobbs. 2010. Influences of immunocontraception on time budgets, social behavior, and body conditions in feral horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 124: 51-60.

Ricklefs, R.E. 1979. Ecology, 2nd Ed. New York: Chiron Press. See esp. Pp. 51-65 & 382-384.

Rogovin, K.A. and M.P. Moshkin. 2007. [Autoregulation in mammalian populations and stress: an old theme revisited. Zhurnal obshchei biologii, 2007; 68(4) 244-267. [In Russian.]

Ryden, Hope. 1999. America’s Last Wild Horses. 30th Anniversary Edition. The Lyon Press, New York.
Sadleir, R.M.F.S. 1969. The Ecology of Reproduction in Wild and Domestic Mammals. Muthuen & Co., Ltd., London.

Stillman, D. 2008. Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston.

Sussman, Karen. 2008. Various articles in Journal of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB) 48(1): 4-8.
Turner, J.W. and M.L. Morrison. 2001 (June). Influence of Predation by Mountain Lions on Numbers and Survivorship of a Feral Horse Population. The Southwestern Naturalist 46(2): 183-190.
USDA, Forest Service, Southwestern Region. 2012. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Tonto National Forest: a checklist. MR-R3-12-2.

Vincent, C.H. 2009 (Dec. 1). Wild Horses and Burros: Current Issues and Proposals. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service 7-5700.

Whitaker, Nancy. 1999 (November). Wild Horses: The Feral Animal Label. The Southeast Horse Report, Wild and Free. Vol. III, Number 11.

Wolfe, Michael L, Jr. 1980. Feral Horse Demography: A Preliminary Report. Online at
Webpages or interest:,

Appendix A.
Birds observed at Salt River & Tonto National Forest, September, 2015, & earlier in October, 2012. Corroborated in Tonto Basin Ranger District Bird List, compiled by B. Morrison, volunteer, & staff.

Wading Birds: White-faced Ibis, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Willet, Purple Gallinule.
Swans, Geese, Ducks: Canada Goose, Cinnamon Teal, Green-Winged Teal, Common Merganser, Redhead, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Mallard, American Coot, Common Mud Hen
Raptors: Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Osprey, Turkey Vulture (many), Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-Tailed Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, American Kestrel
Quail: Gambel’s Quail (many)
Shore Birds, Gulls: Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, California Gull, Ring-billed Gull
Pigeons, Doves: Mourning Dove (many), White-winged Dove, Band-Tailed Pigeon
Cuckoos, etc.: Greater Roadrunner (commonly observed), Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Hummingbirds: Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird
Owls, Goatsuckers: Great Horned Owl, Lesser Nighthawk
Kingfishers: Belted Kingfisher
Woodpeckers: Down Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern/Gilded Flicker (red-shafted)
Flycatchers: Vermillion Flycatcher, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Cassin’s Kingbird
Shrikes, Vireos: Bell’s Vireo
Jays, Crows: American Crow, Common Raven (commonly observed), Western Scrub Jay
Swallows: Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Chickadees & allies: Mountain Chickadee, Verdin (desert brush & mesquite community)
Wrens: Cactus Wren (Several especially nesting in Saguaro Cactus. Strident cries), Marsh Wren (among cattails)
Kinglets, Gnatcatchers: Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (desert brush, mesquite trees)
Bluebirds, Thrushes: Mountain Bluebird, Western Bluebird, American Robin (several)
Mimics: Bendire’s Thrasher (Cholla cactus), Northern Mockingbird (seen near picnic tables & in bushes)
Starlings, Waxwings: European Starling, Phainopepla
Wood Warblers: Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Black-throated Gray Warbler
Tanagers, Cardinals: Blue Grosbeak
Finches: Lesser Goldfinch, House Sparrow
Sparrows & allies: Abert’s Towhee, Canyon Towhee, Green-tailed Towhee, Spotted Towhee, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Icterids: Western Meadowlark, Brown-headed Cowbird, Red-winged Blackbird (common), Great-tailed Grackle (common), Bullock’s Oriole
Water Birds: Eared Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant
See webpages:,

Support Our Work

Make a tax-deductible contribution to allow us to continue conducting research, education and outreach.

Get Involved

Sign up to receive our Action Alerts.

Purchase a copy of The Wild Horse Conspiracy by Craig Downer.

Join Us on Facebook

Issues     About Us     News     Resources     Photo Gallery     What You Can Do     Contact Us