February 27, 2020
Vermilion Flycatcher male with nestlings
Vermilion Flycatcher male with nestlings
Devotees of the hardest late-in-the-week crosswords from the Los Angeles Times will appreciate this hypothetical puzzle clue I just made up:  which word in the acronym SRWHMG is a misnomer?  Clues like this present two layers of difficulty--knowing what the acronym stands for and then figuring out which word is incorrect.  Valley birders really should know both these things, but if I give you the acronym, can you spot the fallacy?

The acronym stands for Salt River Wild Horse Management Group.  The horses along the lower Salt River, most often encountered between Granite Reef and Goldfields Recreation Areas, which this group is supposedly managing, are NOT “wild.”  You may call them feral if you like, escapees as I prefer, or an environmental disaster if you realize habitat destruction is the number one threat facing the birds you like to watch, but the most risible label I’ve heard, this from a SRWHMG website, is “wild.”

Here is a dictionary comparison of “wild” and “feral.”  Feral species have experienced human handling, wild animals never have.  Feral species may support or disrupt an ecosystem, wild animals never disrupt.  DNA research has proven truly wild horse species no longer exist anywhere in the world, and the Przewalski’s (sha-VAL-skee) horses in Mongolia are now known to be descendants of domesticated animals also.  But, instead of parsing adjectives, let’s cut to the issues.

Three years since state lawmakers and the “stakeholders” (horse advocates, environmental groups, ADOT, SRP, Maricopa Indian Community, equestrians, river users, etc.) agreed to formulate a management plan, there are still 500 free-roaming horses confined to an area of 19,000 acres along the lower Salt River.  Biological surveys by research scientists have concluded that the carrying capacity of the proposed 15,000 acre management area could sustain no more than 50 horses without supplemental feeding, perhaps only half of that in periods of drought as climate change raises temperatures in the desert Southwest.

Here are the reasons, in descending order of importance, why birders and others who use and love the lower Salt River would/should like to see the horse herd drastically downsized and their roaming area curtailed:

1—Overgrazing by the horses has denuded the area mesquite forest of all grasses and native plants.  The Tonto along the lower Salt is now just trees and dirt.  Horses eat twice as much as cattle and, having stripped away the ground vegetation, they have begun to munch on the mesquites themselves.  Cottonwoods and willows, the signature trees of the riparian corridor and requisite habitat for some of our most endangered birds, are like candy to the horses when they can find them.  One of the saddest footnotes is that ASU entomology students who for years collected insects for study at Coon Bluff no longer do so because the area has become devoid of ground nesters.  Spoiler alert—birds survive on insects!

1a—Artificial feeding, hay provided for the last two winters by SRWHMG to preclude massive starvation of the herd, has concentrated the horses in a few feeding areas, exacerbating the trampling of native vegetation.

2—Vehicular collisions with horses along the Bush Highway are a continuing potential hazard for motorists and horses alike, with an annual average of twenty horse deaths.  One recent horse/motorcycle collision resulted in brain damage and permanent paralysis for the biker.

3—4.6 million(!) dollars in public funds has been spent since December, 2017 on signs, fencing, rumble strips, and cattle guards, though SRWHMG has stated that management of the herd is “not costing the public anything.”

4—A virulent equine disease, strangles, also known as equine distemper, is now running through the herd.  Strangles is highly contagious, and area horse owners and stable concessionaires worry their stock may become infected.

5—The horses have taken to grazing the eel grass in the Salt River bed itself, reducing and degrading habitat for fish and presenting an obstacle course for kayakers.

6—Since SRWHMG began supplemental feeding, horses are approaching birders, hikers, and photographers for handouts because they now associate humans with food.  The horses, of course, are unaware of the signs that point out it is illegal for humans to be within fifty feet of them.

Here are the justifications, in ascending order of illogic, given by SRWHMG and others who love the feral horses, for keeping the herd unfenced and maintaining its current size or even allowing its increase.  I have parenthetically pointed out the illogic of each of these positions:

1—Horse grazing controls the spread of non-native cheatgrass and subsequent threat of forest fires.  (A fourteen year study by biological researchers concluded that “livestock grazing with the aim of suppressing cheatgrass may be especially counterproductive in unburned areas in which native perennial grasses may remain viable.”)

2—Removing the eel grass from the Salt River bed helps the fishery and keeps the channel open for kayakers.  (Biological studies confirm that fish utilize the eel grass beds for shelter and feed on aquatic organisms that reproduce there.)

3—Horse droppings spread mesquite seeds and thus regenerate the mesquite bosques.  (The only reason the horses are browsing the woody mesquite is that they have stripped the desert of all the herbaceous ground vegetation and, besides, Phainopeplas and other native bird species do this job quite well.)

4—Horse activity clears paths through the non-native Salt Cedar, providing access to the river for water users.  (There are several river access points designated and maintained by the forest service to preclude rampant river bank degradation.)

5—Culling the herd and fencing them out of certain areas will negatively impact “wild horse tourism” along the Salt River.  (There are no businesses along the lower Salt River, and one has to wonder how many people actually make a trip there from out of state just to see feral horses.)

6—Since the herd has been fenced out of the Butcher Jones Recreation area, there are now so many nature lovers using the horse-free beach area it is hard to find a bench or picnic table there.  (Before the exclosure it was far worse.  Weekends would often see 50 horses and 600 people mingling together along the 340 yard stretch of beach.)

SRWHMG management of the horse herd has involved four things, fence monitoring, rescue of sick and injured horses, supplemental hay feeding, and birth control to reduce herd size.  By all estimates, bringing the herd down to a size sustainable for the habitat by contraceptives alone will take at least a decade.  In the meantime the Forest Service has begun installing 14 miles of rod fencing to keep the horses from crossing both the Bush Highway and onto SRPMIC land across the Salt River.

SRWHMG is not happy about this development, claiming it is blocking “historical habitat” on both sides of the river.  Horse advocates (I bite my tongue and refrain from using the pejorative term “humaniacs”) have formed a FaceBook group called Salt River Wild Mustangs with membership approaching 2,000, some of whom have ridiculously posted that horses should be protected because they were there first.  These are biologically and historically uneducated folks who need to understand the time parameters of the adjective “historical” with which they preface the noun “habitat.”

Here are some of my most memorable sightings along the lower Salt:  a Bald Eagle rising from the river, water spraying off the large fish in its talons; a breathtakingly beautiful red male Vermilion Flycatcher bringing caterpillars to three babies in a mesquite nest; a string of Mule Deer leaping a fence, one by one, along a trail paralleling the river; a panoramic view from atop Coon Bluff (yes, it’s scrambleable, not a technical climb) late one monsoon season showcasing the Tonto in all its verdant glory.

Here are some recent sights along the lower Salt I’d like to unsee:  lines of cars parked on both shoulders of the Bush Highway, hordes (a horde in a national forest is anything more than a few) of people standing along the fence, cameras in hand, shooting feral horses that had come right up to them; birding at Coon Bluff in mud after a spring rain, no grass, just dirt accumulating on my boots; dodging copious mounds of manure on the trail above the river at Phon D. Sutton; hearing a commotion at the bottom of a wash near Goldfields and discovering a gaunt and dying horse lying down, thrashing, open sores on its neck oozing liquid.

I am a birder and a nature photographer.  Horses are beautiful, photogenic animals, and they are an iconic thread running through the tapestry of our nation’s westward expansion.  I get all that and embrace it, but the reality is that the Salt River horse herd originated as escapees or releases from the SRPMIC, and financially strapped area ranches, and they are ruining the lower Salt.  They are feral, not wild, and they date back generations, not centuries. 

As this herd of so-called wild mustangs proliferates, I fear unseeable sights will outnumber and displace my cherished memories of the natural beauty of our southwestern deserts.  The problems attributable to this feral species are but a microcosm of the environmental issues confronting our planet because of climate change, overpopulation, and lack of biological education.

This puzzle is complex and, like the L.A. Times crosswords, becomes harder to solve as time slips by though clues are everywhere, none more evident for birders than habitat degradation and loss.  As a race we humans suffer from biological ignorance, environmental apathy, and increasing social anomie.  We birders are stakeholders.  We need to do anything and everything we can.  Now!
Bald Eagle taking fish from Salt River
Bald Eagle taking fish from Salt River