On a lazy weekday afternoon a group of horses grazes on green grass. However, this is no pastoral scene — these animals are not in a stable or field, but right next to a swimming pool, clubhouse and parking lot.
This is the scene at the Rancho Resort community in Sahuarita. For several months the wild horses have come in from the desert to chew on the clubhouse grass and wander down the streets. While delighting most of the residents, their presence raises concerns for the horses and their human neighbors.
Kristen Lenhardt, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, said it’s not surprising that the horses have come into a neighborhood. Recent dry conditions have made food sparse in the desert and horses know that people, in addition to having green plants, will often feed them, she said.
“People equal food in their world,” Lenhardt said.
Dave Biggers of Sahuarita, who has encountered the horses while mountain biking, said he’s concerned about how dry it has been and wants to know if anyone is feeding or watering them. He said he’s worried the horses can’t survive until the monsoon season.
“I think their existence is in peril because of this drought,” Biggers said.
For the moment, those in Rancho Resort, north of Sahuarita Road and west of Interstate 19, seem happy to have them survive by feeding in their neighborhood.
Forbes Keith, who lives in the Las Brisas subdivision, said the horses are not bothering anyone and that he loves to see the them. On the whole, he said, his neighbors all feel the same way. He said the only problems he’s heard of are those who get too close or don’t treat the horses like the wild animals they are.
Syd Kyle, community manager for Rancho Resort, agrees that most residents enjoy seeing the horses and they are less of a nuisance than other animals, such as javelinas.
“They’re not tearing things up, they’re not destructive,” Kyle said.
Regardless, Kyle said the horses need to be removed. The most pressing concern are the droppings the horses leave behind, which can routinely be found on sidewalks or grass areas and which, she says, presents a health concern.
Another problem is the potential for traffic accidents, not only in the community, but also on the nearby Interstate 19 on-ramp, Kyle said.
The community has contacted several organizations, including the state Department of Agriculture and the BLM, about removing the horses. The emphasis is on treating the horses as humanely as possible, Kyle said.
“We’re trying to get the ones that won’t kill; we don’t want them killed,” she said.
Dr. John Hunt, state veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture, said if the department steps in they will, under the current law regarding stray livestock, attempt to contact an owner. If one cannot be found, the horses will be put up for auction.
However, finding owners could present a problem. If the horses are not branded, telling them apart from any wild horses in the area would be difficult, Hunt said. Also it’s possible that the horses come from the nearby Tohono O’odham reservation, which would require working with the tribal government to identify and handle them. Austin Nunez, chairman of the tribe’s San Xavier District north of Sahuarita, was not available this week to comment, according to his office staff.
Complicating matters is the question of whether the horses are truly wild or just stray or abandoned animals. Abandoned horses have become increasingly common in recent years, as the economic downturn has led many owners to let their animals loose into the desert.
Kyle said that the horses roaming the community are definitely strays based on her conversations with the BLM. Lenhardt agreed they are most likely abandoned as the only wild horse herds managed by the BLM are in the western parts of the state.
However, workers at the ASARCO mine visitors center, about three miles north of the community, said horses have been roaming the area for the 15 years the center has been around.
Doug Austin, who gives tours of the mine, said there was a count a couple years ago that found 26 horses in area which were split into two or three herds.
In fact, these are not the first horses to come to Rancho Resort. Two years ago another group was seen on the outskirts of the community but never came into the neighborhood.
Rancho Resort is waiting to hear back from the Department of Agriculture about removal.