A Conversation About Wild Horses: Jacquelyn Hughes
The current public debate about the wild horse, and certainly Arizona’s wild horses, may never be resolved. An article in Science magazine aggressively stirred more discussion of what wild means. The February 22, 2018 article, “Ancient DNA upends the Horse Family Tree,” quotes one zoo archaeologist as saying, “We have now found that there are no truly wild horses left” anywhere in the world.
Beyond the public’s definition of “wild,” we have a public that keeps making things worse for the horses that hang out around Arizona’s sagebrush and saguaro.
But, perhaps the Arizona Department of Agriculture has found the best person to bridge the chasm between the public’s interest in wild horses and the practical protection of the public and wildlife: Jacquelyn Hughes. Hughes is the Salt River Horse Liaison at the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA). I met her during the Arizona Capitol Market Thursdays that AZDA hosts on the Capitol grounds during the legislative session.
Her background includes public school education, vocational agriculture, equine-assisted activities for children with physical and/ or mental disabilities, and public health programs. Hughes's experience also includes 20+ years of equine management and equine healthcare in a variety of settings from competition to managing horses on the landscape.
After meeting her, we had a fascinating discussion of the relationship between the public and wild horses. And, of course, I asked her to share her insights with us.
Then, just this week, the Arizona Republic came out with the latest news on the Salt River Wild Horses and concern that the management plan signed by Governor Doug Ducey is facing challenges including the public’s intrusion. So, what better timing than now to share with a broader audience some insights that might help us understand what the horse population, the public, the environment, and agriculture face.
Jacquelyn Hughes works to educate the public about wild horses with positive solutions and provide a reality check that helps avoid tragedy when the public and nature meet.
Arizona Agriculture : Talk a bit about the provision in the Farm Bill that has kept horses identified as livestock, not pets and why this is important?
Hughes: H.R. 2 The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 or the Farm Bill, revised the proposed language regarding the “horse” from being under the blanket term of “pet” to a stand-alone category as a horse which preserves the long-standing classification of the horse as “livestock.”
The original language listed the horse under PAWS (Pets and Women Safety) which could have made an impact on the horse industry business by allowing other legislation to be considered that would impact animal agriculture with over-reaching and burdensome regulations.
The definition under livestock allows horses to be used for business purposes, for ranchers and farmers, as well as recreational horse owners without heavy regulations that do not have a practical application.
Arizona Agriculture : The Salt River Horses is the perfect example of the conflict between man and animal, or should we say man and wild animal. With such challenging forces as work, how has the department helped manage the delicate balance?
Hughes: The Department entered into an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the United States Forest Service (USFS) on 12/28/17 to work together for the betterment of the Salt River horses. One of the items in this IGA was to create and jointly fund a position to serve as the liaison between the Department and the USFS. Another important item in the IGA was for the USFS to fund a collaborative working group consisting of federal, state, and county governments along with community stakeholders to determine recommendations for a long-term management plan for the Salt River horses.
A dedication to developing good working relationships and finding common ground for practicing good communication skills has been instrumental in managing the delicate balance.
Arizona Agriculture: Explain what you’re trying to do with the day-to-day management of the horses?
Hughes: Currently, the Department has a third-party contract with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group to handle the day-to-day activities with the Salt River horses. This group consists of 120+ volunteers who monitor, document and take action when there are conflicts with the horses on the Forest. The Department provides technical guidance, education, and hands-on support as needed when dealing with horse emergencies.
Arizona Agriculture: I’m struck with the reality that much of what the public does is detrimental to the animals. Explain some of these situations especially when it comes to a newborn foal and photographers chasing herds.
Hughes: The Salt River Horse Herd is known worldwide and with all the recent publicity over the year they have become a very big attraction. Photographers from all over come out to take pictures of these horses which has caused concern for other forest users’ safety as well as the Salt River Horse Herd. When a photographer is on foot following a band of horses, often the horses get inadvertently moved into developed recreation sites, onto Bush Highway, or into another band which can cause horses to fight.
The constant pressure of the public in such close proximity, 24/7, has also made a noticeable change in the Salt River horses' flight response behavior. Folks can get extremely close to the horses before the herd reacts. Just like that kick zone we teach new horseman to stay out of with a domestic horse, you can get to that area of a Salt River horse and unfortunately, there is little chance there is someone around to explain that to a visitor on the forest.
In the case of foals being born on the forest amongst an approximate 5.8 million annual visitors, abandonment is often another issue for the Salt River horses. What we saw last summer was that a mare will have a foal in an area close to or in developed recreational sites. The public will approach the newborn and sometimes pet the foal or surround the foal and the mare and the band will leave the area. Attempts to reunite foals with their mothers and family have had a very poor success rate. The result is the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group will be required to remove the orphan from the forest to be raised in captivity as a domestic horse since the mares in those situations abandon their foals.
Arizona Agriculture: What can we do to better teach the public on these issues especially as it relates to horse herds and the environment?
Hughes: Public Education should be a priority in teaching about the environment and horse herds. Not just the scientific data or pictures and stories relating to the situation but more practical application or opportunities to have hands-on involvement with the management of an area where horse herds reside. Often, I encounter comments from the public that appears to be information that is either misconstrued or altogether inaccurate.
An example could be that most folks are accustomed to the diet and responsibility of caring for the domesticated horse. It would be reasonable for a person to assume this standard or a slight variation of this standard could be reasonably applied to an undomesticated horse.
After observing the Salt River horses for a year and watching what they eat and what they do I was amazed at the very small amounts of feed they required to survive and how little of a distance they traveled. Even more shocking is what they were eating. For example, after some research, I discovered that the Salt River horses eat Arundo (Giant Reed). Had I not witnessed this I would have argued this point that they were consuming this plant. Arundo is high in fiber, low in protein, and difficult to digest. However, Arundo contains anthelmintic properties- parasite control, basically a natural dewormer.
A priority to positive solutions would most definitely be opportunities for the public to work with governmental entities to gain the knowledge and experience so that they are able to review science and understand the impact from a practical application perspective.
Arizona Agriculture: Plus, what’s at stake here if we don’t successfully balance wild horse populations, the environment and agriculture’s use of public lands?
Hughes: This question could be better answered by reviewing information with an open mind and then by going out to the areas where wild horse populations reside. Reading about a plant or the soil or a water source and understanding what it may look like and then comparing it to the area where the horses reside. Again, it goes back to education followed by practical application.
The Lower Salt River area is a good place to take a good hard look at the impacts of horses. In the areas by the river, if you go sit for a short period of time, you can see a lot of things. You may see horses and people first. Looking at the things that grow there you notice quickly that the mesquite trees are hedged very high instead of growing to the ground as they naturally do. You will also notice the lack of any small shrubbery such as sage or creosote or tall weeds or native grasses. After noticing the lack or distortion of the vegetation, you quickly will notice an unnatural sound. There are no quail or dove or little rodents. The insects are far and few in between. Typical birds you might see or hear in trees are also void. Lastly, if you walk around this area you won’t find coyote or javelina droppings or snakes.
It is then at that very moment you realize the area is out of balance. Although the Salt River horses are beautiful to photograph and cherished by many, when their numbers become out of balance, the rest of the critters in the area disappear because the overabundance of the horse adapted to eating their habitat.
Arizona Agriculture: The future?
Hughes: The future of the Salt River horses is on track to have positive solutions that other areas and other states could potentially model after. The current short-term, third-party management plan includes the birth control PZP to stop population growth. The Salt River Horses Collaborative working group is working on recommendations for a long-term management plan. The Department and the USFS have a great working relationship which also includes the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Maricopa County Department of Transportation Department. The Department works closely with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and other community members that advocate for the Salt River horses. Keeping strong relationships by using good communication skills is the key to the success that we have had this far.
The Future for wild horse herds across the west: I can’t draw a conclusion for that challenge. Each herd is unique as is the government entities and the people involved. My advice, keep an open mind, be patient with each other, listen to each other and don’t just hear, but always look for a positive solution.
Arizona Agriculture : Can we ever get a reality check on the public?
Hughes : During the past few months at the Lower Salt River where the Salt River horses reside has been very challenging when it comes to public safety. It is understandable that people want to see these horses especially since we have had so much rain and the desert is stunning. Being able to see undomesticated horses in this setting is rare here in the Sonoran Desert.
The Unfortunate reality is that people want to get close to the horses. Children being children want to touch the animal, parents want that desirable perfect vacation picture. Photographers from all over including winter visitors want that rare opportunity to catch bands of horses interacting or the shot of that one-hour old foal. To increase the intensity, folks turn to social media which draws out more of the public to visit the protected Salt River horses.
Although the public means no harm to the Salt River horses nor to each other, the situation has reached a point that I am requesting assistance at an increasing rate from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office attempting to protect the public from injuries that could happen if a horse or horses kick, rear up and paw out, bite, or turn and run literally causing a stampede.
In April, I stopped on Bush Highway because there were several cars stopped in an area where horses were standing outside of the existing insufficient fence line and Bush Highway. As I got out of my truck parents were encouraging their very small children to get up next to Salt River horses for pictures. Meanwhile, a group of older children was running towards these same horses from another direction. I quickly asked the family to back up away from the horses and stopped the other children running towards the horses.
Had those Salt River horses become scared and attempted to run, they would have gone right over the top of the little girls trampling them and onto Bush Highway right into traffic. The thought of what could have happened haunts me because unfortunately, this type of situation is becoming a familiar event in this area with the Salt River horses.
I am hopeful that public education and positive solutions will be able to prevent a reality check that could end in tragedy.
Editor’s Note : This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Arizona Agriculture, the monthly publication of the Arizona Farm Bureau.
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