February 6 – February 18, 2022
Henry David Thoreau
We need the tonic of wildness… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.
By mid-February we were boon-docked outside of Phoenix in the Bulldog Canyon OHV area again. We, I, thought there was a good chance of nabbing a better site in the Bulldog Canyon OHV area if we rolled in on a Sunday afternoon, so did everyone else with camper, tent, bus, short bus, old bus, new bus, pink dog wash busses, sprinter vans white and sprinter vans of color. Bright side: our camping spot was far from the gate entrance, we had less traffic and a great view. Negative: the primitive road is a torn up unmaintained joy land for off road toys, I received a free whip-lash without the motor vehicle accident.
The sun is a cruel god in the Sonoran. North of the 45th it pleasantly kisses the skin on a cool 60 degree spring day, here you can feel the furnace blasting down over cool dry breezes. And then the desert warmth doesn’t linger after sunset. The light winks out and so does the heat, abruptly. Each day we spent there was a perfect copy of the one before. Cornflower crayon blue skies occasionally marked by a stray cloud hovering behind the cliffs. Every morning we were visited by a pair of cautious ravens calling down from their perch on the power-line. Dry 80 degree days capped by the reliable artistry of sunset lighting the cliffs with soft golden hour touches, brushing violet-red on jagged edges.
We came back to Bulldog Canyon trusting I’d find a band of Salt River Horses to photograph this time. (last time we were here, and when we were here last year). I kept to my routine of focusing on art work between errands. There was and have been no sign of any bands coming near our campsite.
But we did find them.
Out on one of our errands Kurt and I happened on the diversionary feeding site of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. It isn’t normal for the SRWHMG to dole out supplemental feedings. They did in 2021 because of severe drought conditions. This year, 2022, they are doing it at one location, for roughly 100-150 horses out of 400, as a diversion. Earlier this year some of the horses made their way past a ”natural barrier” then over some temporary fencing, and at least one made it across the highway for an adventure. Until the barrier can be properly barred, diversionary feeding it is, to keep motorists and horses safe. In many areas of the country we deal with wildlife-motorist collisions as a modern expense of the open road (we don’t have to, wildlife bridges work). Horses are 4x the size of a whitetail deer. Mustangs weigh in at approximately 800 pounds while a large whitetail deer weighs 300 pounds, emphasis on large. While the feedings feel like a horse family reunion holiday or a spectacle for wild horse enthusiasts, the enormous effort expended by the volunteers to feed 150 horses might be saving at the least property damage and at the most the lives of horses and motorists.
What was the ultimate horse plan? To get out, or get fed… win-win for wily horses.
The Salt River horses are documented as occupying their territory for over a hundred years, probably 200 years and there is reason to believe they have roamed the desert surrounding Phoenix going on 400 years (SRWHMG).
Today the herd of around 400 horses is looked after by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. The horses share their range with recreational visitors: campers, hikers, horseback riders, ORVs, fishers, tubing rentals, photographers and fans. It is a busy place, just outside Phoenix. The horses are politely asked to keep to their Tonto National Forest range on the Salt River with fencing, gates, locks, cattle guards and routine volunteer patrols. Fertility and subsequent herd numbers are managed with PZP field darting of mares. There are no roundups of the Salt River Horses for population control and the SRWHMG works to educate about the ethics and humane use of PZP.
SRWHMG uses their collective voice to advocate for wild horses elsewhere. The Group is advocating for the Heber Wild Horses, another herd in Arizona. The Heber horses are facing herd decimation at the hands of their protectors the US Forest Service. They plan to cull that herd down to 100 individuals.
Cattle vs. Wild Horses is a long story in the west.
Meanwhile someone or multiple someones have been shooting the Heber Horses, a (supposed) federally protected herd. To date, 30 horses have officially been counted killed but some claim up to 40.
Are the Salt River Horses really wild? Volunteers with the SRWHMG are themselves not allowed to touch the horses. I was told by one volunteer that once a horse is handled for rehab they cannot be reintroduced to the herd. They do not want tame horses and they cannot allow it “to become a petting zoo.” The Forest Service oversees decisions to bring horses in. As is the case with a community favorite, Shadowfax, who needed medical and geriatric care.
The public is warned to keep 50 feet away. I have no issue with that, but unbelievably I witnessed a man walk into the restless herd taking cell phone video and get followed around by two of the horses. Was the man in danger? Were the horses looking for food? was my fear of horses coloring my perception? a volunteer asked the man to stand 50 ft back and he left.
I observed the herd over several visits, several hours each. The PZP is a spermicide instead of a hormonal contraceptive, allowing the horses to continue their natural behaviors. Full nat-geo behavior. Males broke out into rowdy play spars often. Females roughly rebuffed males. Stallions headed off challengers and perceived challengers. These clashes were intense at times. I heard some of the kicks land with solid thunks. In the golden hour a calm fell over the individuals. They one by one stopped milling around as much, stopped eating and stood. By then some of the bands left.
The volunteers worked out a method of spreading out the feed. I’m assuming this was to mitigate some of the restlessness in the herd, allowing the bands to space out. They also doled out feed to a few elder horses living on the periphery of the herd.
I came, I saw, I communed woman + camera + horse. I took home images I never dreamed I could capture. I learned horses have an eleven month gestation. PZP has a 5% failure rate. Horses make a funny face when they smell pheromones. And there’s this terrible Slate article slamming the Salt River herd and others like it and I’m baffled on how to wrap my head around it. The article makes the authors appear as though they have never visited the area. It isn’t the horses doing the most damage in the area. It’s the people. Horses don’t dump beds, throw their trash into the desert and shoot up saguaros. My husband came back from every hike with at least one mylar balloon. Trash, vandalism and scarring ecosystems by reckless apathy are universal human traits not shared by other species. Not every non-native species kept on public land (ahem cows) needs to be there for human consumption, some can be there to move the spirit. The SRWHMG has proven that wild horses can be kept sustainably as part of the American landscape for generations to experience and be inspired by as they have for over 400 years▪️