Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, April 27, 2023


Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity, (602)-799-3275,
Charles Babbitt, Maricopa Audubon Society, (602) 617-1990,
John Koleszar, Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation, (480) 720-2393,
Scott Garlid, Arizona Wildlife Federation, (480) 487-4663,

Lawsuit Challenges U.S. Forest Service Failure to Protect Arizona’s Lower Salt River

PHOENIX— A coalition of conservationists, environmentalists and birders sued the U.S. Forest Service today for failing to protect the Lower Salt River Recreation Area from hundreds of unowned horses that threaten endangered species habitat.

“This is another tragic example of Forest Service employees failing to do their jobs, obey the law and manage public lands based on science,” said Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The agency’s management plan ignores science, their own experts, facts on the ground and basic livestock husbandry. It’s senseless to try to manage 600 horses in an area where ranchers couldn’t even sustain 12 cows.”

Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, says the Forest Service ignored its own concerns that the animals are damaging the area and can’t survive in the high desert and riparian areas east of Phoenix without artificial feeding. The lawsuit seeks to force the Tonto National Forest to prevent further habitat damage and protect endangered species habitat.

“Maricopa Audubon did not save this area from being destroyed by the Orme Dam only to now have it degraded by allowing an invasion of a huge number of feral horses from adjoining Tribal lands,” said Charles Babbitt, conservation chair of Maricopa Audubon. “Endangered riparian songbirds like yellow-billed cuckoos and Southwestern willow flycatchers are barely hanging on in this area. With horses eating all the riparian tree saplings, these trees can’t grow into the mature cottonwoods that desert nesting bald eagles need. Yuma clapper rails also need the area to recover, but without the riparian vegetation the situation is becoming increasingly hopeless.”

Cow grazing in the area was terminated in 1978 because there was only enough forage for 12 cows and it was no longer economically viable for ranching. Since then, horses have moved into the Lower Salt River area from the adjoining Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community and Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation lands.

Federal range scientists have calculated that the area can sustainably support 20 to 44 horses per year. In a 2018 report, University of Arizona range scientists failed to document a single perennial grass plant in the area.

“Mule deer have already been run out of the area by the horses’ severe overgrazing,” said John Koleszar, past president of the Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation. “Native quail have no nesting areas with the habitat so barren. The Forest Service here does dozens of management plans per year for cows. What could possibly be stopping them from doing a science-based plan for the Lower Salt?”

Approximately 600 horses roam the management area, which covers roughly 20,000 acres, including nearly eight miles of the Lower Salt River. The horses are increasingly concentrated in smaller areas by artificial feeding to prevent mass starvation. The horses now associate people with food and approach them for food.

“Agency range scientists have documented that the horses have denuded the area of native forage. Mule deer have already been driven out and next will be the big horn sheep,” says Arizona Wildlife Federation Executive Director Scott Garlid. “When will the Forest Service get control of this historic fiasco? These horses are unauthorized under federal law, and their numbers must be reduced to protect the federal land being destroyed.”

A 2016 state law recognized a Salt River horse as “not a stray animal,” but the state in 2020 denied ownership and responsibility for any damage caused by the horses.

Endangered species harmed and prevented from recovering by the damage to streamside habitats include yellow-billed cuckoos, Southwestern willow flycatchers and Yuma clapper rails. Native wildlife harmed by the habitat damage include mule deer, desert bighorn sheep and quail.

The agency’s horse management plan is being challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon Society, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Arizona Deer Association, Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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