- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Lawmakers, wildlife advocates and state officials came together Wednesday to safeguard wild horses that had faced federal roundups near the Salt River, though they were still divided on how those protections should take shape.

The U.S. Forest Service planned to remove the horses in December but backed down after public backlash. The agency has since said it will work with animal advocates and state officials to develop a long-term plan to manage the horses.

Legislation from Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, would establish the herd of about 100 horses as state property under care of the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Her measure also would stop slaughter of the horses without department authorization and opt the state out of paying for the herd’s management.

“For the Forest Service to say, ‘We are rounding up your horses and sending them off for auction’ is kind of a shock,” Townsend said about why she sponsored House Bill 2340.

It passed the House federalism committee on a 5-2 vote. At its hearing, Townsend said the measure is a move in the right direction but that the sides need to work together on its language. To that end, she also sponsored House Bill 2572, which would create a study committee to research the issue. The panel passed it unanimously.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture wants to see a resolution by the end of the legislative session, spokeswoman Laura Oxley said.

“I believe that not only the department, but the whole state, is of a single mind to try to find the right answer to care for the Salt River horses,” Oxley said.

Rep. Darin Mitchell, R-Litchfield Park, opposed the measure for the state agency to care for the horses, saying it’s an unfunded mandate.

“I would venture to say that we are too far away from a solution to pass this along,” he said.

Other lawmakers agreed that the proposal was a work in progress but felt the bill needed to move forward to protect the animals.

“At the end of the day, we have a treasure,” said Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley. “We know we have a treasure, and we seek to protect that treasure.”

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