Ecological Report on Salt River (AZ) Wild Horse Herd & Associated Ecosystem

Arizona’s Salt River Wild Horses (Photo © Craig Downer)

By Craig C. Downer, Wildlife Ecologist, President: Andean Tapir Fund

Date: December 19, 2012

For three days, between Tuesday, September 25 and Thursday, September
27, 2012, I joined horse activist Simone Netherlands and musician
Joseph Bobian in observing the Salt River ecosystem just to the NE of
Mesa, Arizona. The section we covered in kayaks was upstream from
Granite Reef Dam and below the Stewart Mountain Dam. Much of the
northern side of the river here belongs to the Salt River (Pima) Indian
Reservation (the Pima are likely descendants of the fascinating Hohokum
people who dwelt in this region for nearly 2,000 years and had
extensive canal irrigation systems). The rest of the land is under the
jurisdiction of the Tonto National Forest. Camping and picnicking is
allowed in three sites along the river on its south side. The Phon-D.
Sutton Recreation and wildlife viewing area is found on the lower side.
The area is accessed along the Bush Highway, FR 204, at the ranger
station, where we put our kayaks into the river. This section of the
river occurs right above its junction with the Verde River that flows
in from the north. The Salt River drainage has been subject to
intensive development for both agricultural and municipal purposes, and
it is responsible for much of Phoenix’s great expansion since 1911 to
become the sixth largest city in the United States. However, the
exploitation of this basin’s water, power, soils, natural plants and
animals, etc., has come at a price. Some of the consequences are
readily detected, such as the erratic flows caused by the dam, the
sections of the river with eutrophied and/or polluted waters, and the
large quantities of garbage present in and around the river and its
riparian habitat. However, in order to assess the full consequences of
this enormous alteration of the Salt River, a comprehensive comparison
of what this river used to be and what it has now become would be
necessary. Clearly, only a vestige of its former exuberance and
extension remains. But this is an crucial vestige, and several
institutions are working to restore the full vitality of this river,
including private and government entities. These projects are
certainly worthy of our input and collaboration.

This area is a riverine habitat set within the great Sonoran Desert
ecosystem, and it is crucial for maintaining the native plant and
animal diversity of the region. Since water is the key limiting factor
of desert life, the importance of a river to its adjacent life
communities is critical one. Ecologists and naturalists have
recognized the Salt River for its great variety of birds, and the
Audubon Society has been quite active in conservation projects,
including the annual Christmas Bird Counts. Also fish are very diverse
and abundant here. This ecosystem has many features of a marshland,
which accounts for its high annual productivity in terms of biomass, in
areas that are not overly polluted or otherwise degraded.

As a wildlife ecologist, my primary purpose for visiting the Salt River
ecosystem was to observe its wild horse inhabitants and to assess their
health and populatioin as well as their impacts/contributions to the
whole life community, including humans.

Field Observations:
During the mid to late afternoon and early evening of 9/25/12, I
kayaked from the ranger station a few miles west along the Salt River
near to where it joined with the Verde River. Immediately upon
disembarking and just below a minor rapids, I encountered a band of
eight wild horses with one foal. All had glossy coats and were in good
condition, judging by the Heineke scale as 4’s or 5’s. They were
eating a variety of riverbank vegetation, including tall cane grass,
cattail, acacia, small aster bushes, and even tamarisk. They
were also eating the fresh water Eelgrass that grew on the river
bottom. Though they maintained a safe distance of ca. 50’ from the
kayak, they did not appear to be frightened, but carried on with their
meals. They were mainly a rich reddish brown and some had significant
white facial markings. A few hundred yards further down the river,
another band of six was encountered, including a pregnant gray mare.
They were also in fine condition and peacefully grazing. Another few
hundred yards further down, a strong, young, white stallion stood off
from a band of several horses whose leader stallion was a mature, fit
pinkish-purplish roan, whom Simone named “Pink Floyd”. Among his band
were sorrel mares with blazes. It later became apparent that the white
stallion was trying to woo at least one mare from the band and that the
roan stallion was keenly aware of his intentions.

In general during my three days, I observed that each band usually
maintained a space of at least a few hundred yards from other bands,
except for rare times such as in the late afternoon when I did observe
a few bands coming together. Each band usually kept moving so that no
particular portion of the river habitat became over-browsed or grazed.

I soon began to notice how these wild river horses were eating the
fresh water Eelgrass much of the time. This I consider a positive
ecological contribution that prevents the clogging of the river,
especially during periods when the Stewart Mountain Dam releases less
water. I had been told by locals that there were times when very
little water was released and the river slowed to a trickle. The river
bank revealed high flows and even flood stages in the recent past, and
the present flow was quite full. If the flow is often cut drastically,
then many species would appear to have a tortured life history, past,
present, and future.

During the late afternoon float, we observed large willow trees, some
of which were being moderately browsed by the horses. “Continental
species of conservation concern” observed here include the Abert’s
Towhee and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (also endangered). Marsh
Wrens, Great Blue Herons fishing in the shallows, and groups of Turkey
Vultures circling high overhead, Snowy Egrets and Belted Kingfishers
were also frequently observed. Large-mouth Bass propelled themselves
bodily out of the water in the early evening, making loud thumps and
splashing sounds that carried a long ways. Sunfish were also present.
Around 100 or so recreationalists were also present, many in kayaks or
boats of various sorts. Many were fishing. There were many pink or
reddish clusters of small gelatinous eggs plastered on herbaceous stems
at the edge of the river, which were probably those of a frog. I
noticed several small Lowland Leopard Frogs, which the herons seemed to
be hunting with their stabbing beaks along with fish. Nesting Bald
Eagles were reported to me by locals as well as Joe Bobian. Several
species of Dragon Flies were observed, including a large 3”-winged,
orange one. Mosquitoes came out at sundown. Small biting Black Flies
were also present. Sign of Muskrats were detected on the river banks.
Beaver were also gnawing on some trees on the north bank and there was
sign of a former beaver, submerged when the river was at a higher level.

The north side of the river had considerable cattle, and ca. 100 were
observed during my three days on the river, compared with about a half
as many wild horses, i.e. ca. 50. Many of the cattle were on the
reservation and causing much habitat destruction. The south side of
the river, however, did not display such habitat destruction except
where people and their activities, including ORVs and garbage were
negatively impacting. This indicated that the wild horses, present on
both sides of the river, were not causing such destruction. It would
be both dishonest and unfair to blame them for habitat destruction
being caused by cattle or by people. For truly they are restorers and
healers here.

I directly observed many positive contributions that these horses were
making to the riparian ecosystem. A variety of seedlings sprouted from
the horses droppings and included those of the thorny Acacia tree
common here and whose leaves and twigs I observed the horses eating.
Their pruning of this tree or eating of its seedlings maintains open
areas and habitat diversity by preventing this tree’s overcrowding of
the ecosystem.

Of all the species I observed the horses eating, the river or fresh
water Eelgrass seemed to log the most time in the horses schedule.
Perhaps this was because they had to work hard at pruning these tough
leathery ribbons with their upper and lower incisors and at the same
time tug them out of the water. Sometimes I observed them flinging
this vegetation, perhaps to clean it of clinging mud particles. There
were other types of river vegetation, one of which was Potamogeton,
which was also eaten.

While investigating a sandy island, I observed a horse wallow area in
the river-washed sand. There were also trails that wove from the
rivers through the thickets and out into the upland Sonoran desert
hills, with their colorful and statuesque cacti. Some tree trunks were
used as rubbing posts, and some shady groves were occupied for shade
and for concealment. Puma occur here, as well as coyotes and bobcats.
Puma can take young horses or weakened, diseased or declining, older
horses, especially in ambush. Shortly prior to my arrival, one
unfortunate, dark-colored stallion had become entangled in barbed wire,
which cut deep into the flesh above his hoof. Though we persistently
searched for him during the three days in an effort to help him, he was
no longer to be seen. It is possible that a puma had followed the
bloody trail left by his wound, then overtook and killed him through
strangulation, which would have been merciful in the end. Abandoned
barbed wire fences are particularly a problem on the north side of the
river where the cattle occur and should be removed here as well as on
the south side of the river, where there are also many fences. These
are real hazards for many animals, including both species of deer found
here: the Mule Deer and the Whitetail Deer.

On a sandy island in the middle of the river, I gathered evidence that
horse feces were clearly helping to build the soils by contributing to
their humus component and by dispersing many intact seeds of a great
variety of plant species, including the Acacia, along with some Mints,
and members of the Sunflower Family, Asteraceae. I also observed many
Squash seeds that had been deposited in tact in the horse feces. This
ecological contribution by the horses is quite major and serves to
increase the diversity of plant and animal species in many ways (See
Downer, Ch. 2). I have done detailed studies of this sort and could so
again given adequate support. From what I saw of the river and its
riparian habitat, the wild horses are not over-populating, but are at a
numerical level that is in balance with the other species and well
spaced. Their removal or major reduction would have a
dis-equilibrating effect upon the Salt River ecosystem.

Wild horses have been here for centuries, dating back to Spanish
missionary times, three to four hundred years ago. They were also
present during the passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and
Burros Act of 1971 (P.L. 92-195) and are legally entitled to protection
within the Tonto National Forest. Please note that the U.S. Forest
Service, under USDA, (along with the BLM, under USDI) is also charged
with preserving, protecting, and managing the wild horses as
“principal” resource recipients within their legal territories (USFS).
(See section 2 c of this act, & Downer, pp. xi-xiii.)

Rather than removing or greatly reducing the modest population of wild
horses here, Tonto National Forest officials should focus on clearing
up all the garbage that has accumulated for many years in and around
the Salt River, and prevent its further accumulation. Officials should
also restrict recreational vehicles, such as ATV’s and motorcycles, as
well as certain river craft, that are having damaging effects on the
stream banks and other riparian areas, or upon the river itself.

The majority of the horses I viewed were in good shape with Heineke
scores of between 4 & 5, with a few 3’s and a few 6’s. Present were a
reasonable number of foals and yearlings. The latter were not at all
excessive as would indicate a population boom. The wild horses were
establishing a harmonious balance within the Salt River ecosystem and
contributing positively to this.

An important aspect of a Salt River wild horse band’s year-round life
is its occupation of the upland Sonoran desert habitat. The band
trails I followed led into the surrounding upland ravines and
mountains, some with spectacular red sandstone formations. This
indicates that the wild horses are being true to their ancient,
semi-nomadic nature. They are distributing their grazing and browsing
pressure over very large areas involving hundreds of square miles, thus
minimizing their impacts on any given part of their home range and
allowing this to regenerate. Such a wholesome lifestyle, attuned to
seasonal variation, stands in marked contrast to the domestic cattle I
observed, either directly or indirectly, concentrating their grazing
and browsing pressure along the northern side of the river, and
trampling and over-consuming vegetation. This is causing increased
erosion of soils as well as putrid, stagnant conditions along certain
river plains where the excess urine and feces of cattle become a
breeding ground for dangerous bacteria and disease-conveying
mosquitoes, which brings me to my next topic.

Examining the water of Salt River, I realized it carried a high
nutrient, including Nitrogen, load. Although it did not show signs of
extreme eutrophication, if the volume of water released from the
Stewart Mountain Dam to the east were to be decreased, such
eutrophication could set in to the detriment especially of animal life.
This would result in a harmful concentration of anaerobic bacteria and
the depletion of oxygen from the water with attendant die-off of fish,
amphibians, many invertebrates and dependent reptiles, birds, and
mammals of a great variety. Also of concern is the introduction of
pesticides, herbicides, chemical leaching from nearby mines, air
pollution, sewage from homes and businesses, and the general littering
of plastics, tin cans, picnic garbage, etc., from visitors. I could
tell the situation was serious when I visited certain river edges with
little current on the slow side of bends. These were becoming
eutrophied and had gobs of algae floating in them as well as masses of
floating plastic refuse, some of which is ingested by animals or
tangles them up and even strangles them. The wild horses’ daily visits
to the river significantly aid in more thoroughly circulating its
waters. Also, by wading or swimming through and eating the river
vegetation and then moving inland to deposit their feces in drier
uplands, the horses assist in preventing eutrophication and keep the
ecosystem more open for deer and other animals to circulate. They aid
in the aeration of the waters. The wild horses maintain and even
enhance the ecological health of the river and its riparian habitat, as
well as that of the adjacent Sonoran desert, with all its amazing
variety of cacti, mesquite, succulents, herbs, grasses, forbs, bushes,
and trees that have adapted to the hot and arid conditions here.
Acting on the river bottoms, their hoof action serves to aerate
stagnant areas and prevent toxic anaerobic conditions from developing.
(See Downer, Chapter II.)

The life of the Salt River wild-horse-containing ecosystem begins to
really stir during the crepuscular hours of late afternoon and early
evening. At this time dramatic chases occurred between stallions
competing for mares, and bass spectacularly leaptout of the river
followed by the loud slapping of the river surface as they re-enter the
water. I also heard the hoarse chorus of the gangly Great Blue Herons,
the cheerful, cozy chatter of day-active songbirds seeking their
protective roosts in bushes, and the energetic takeoff of ducks and
geese, quail and doves, seeking their nocturnal abodes as well.

An Overview:
For all the assaults the Salt River ecosystem has suffered,
particularly during the last century, the portion I visited still
appears to be more healthy than sick, more animated than dead. In
spite of bearing the burden of having made possible the sixth largest
city in America with several million human inhabitants, it is still
more alive than moribund. And when allowed to resume their natural
life in accord with their age-old instincts and traditions, those
returned North American native species: the horses truly serve to
resuscitate the Salt River ecosystem. They were here for many millions
of years, in this land of their evolutionary origin and long-standing
evolution (see Chapter I of my book). They are refilling a vacant
ecological niche only quite briefly dis-occupied. They have deeper
roots than just about any group of mammals one can name, much deeper
than even the autochthonous pronghorn, and it is absurd to call them
“misfits”. And who is modern “civilized” man, anyway to be calling
them misfits?! Modern civilized man who is the most unnatural and so
misfit creature on the living Earth, because of his own over-population
and artificially making over of the Earth’s life community. He prides
himself in doing an “extreme makeover” of it all. But I ask: by what
guiding principles other than materialistic self-serving?! Isn’t it
high time that we humans learn to be more truly “civilized” with our
fellow species – in this special case the horse, who has done so much
for us. Isn’t it high time we do something truly good and decent for
him?! We can start by just letting horses be themselves in free and
natural habitats where they belong and to which they contribute so
positively. One such opportunity is Salt River.

Finally I quote from the current November, 2012, issue of National
Geographic Magazine in its “Next” section on “Horse Power”:
“Diminutive Konik horses stand about four feet tall, but they can have
a big impact on biodiversity. By eating the woody vegetation that
overcomes open marshes, these likely descendants of the horses in
prehistoric cave paintings are helping revive the natural landscapes
that existed when large herbivores roamed freely.”

“Before Neolithic farmers began to till marshes in what is now Europe,
grazers kept forests from creeping in, which allowed varied habitats
for birds, insects, and plants to flourish. Today, conservationists
are trying to revive that diversity. In many places that means cutting
brush back with chain saws. But Koniks are cheaper and better at it.
The horses are now at work in nearly a dozen countries – including some
20 sites in the U.K. alone.” (Williams.)

This tribute to the value of the horse in restoring and maintaining
ecological diversity by preventing takeover of brush, etc., is directly
applicable to the Salt River ecosystem. Salt River’s wild horses are
positive assets. They should not be removed but rather allowed to fill
their ancient niche within their ancestral lands in North America.
They are post-gastric digesters who complement ruminant digesters, help
build the soils, disperse the seeds of intact seeds capable of
germination, prevent catastrophic fires, and maintain productive and
bio-diverse riparian habitats, among other habitat types. We
“two-leggeds” (old Indian term for humans) must learn to appreciate a
wild-horse-containing ecosystem. It is a restored and enhanced one –
and what’s more it is especially beautiful!

List of Species for Salt River riparian and aquatic and adjoining
desert above Mesa AZ:
White mussels and white clams, food of Muskrat, evidence for which also
Dragon flies, several species including metallic orange and electric
Mosquitoes, especially in more stagnant waters.
Black Flies, biting and in large swarms, more noticeable as day warmed.
Dung beetles, reducing horse droppings and enhancing food chain, e.g.
bird, lizard food.
Water skippers, abundant in river.
Funnel Spider, in drier riparian on forest floor, north side river.

Carp (may lay red eggs on twigs according to Joe Bobian)
Large-mouth Bass
Lowland Leopard Frog, several in stiller waters, some floating belly up
in stagnant water.
Arizona Black Rattlesnake.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
Black-tailed Rattlesnake.
Lyre Snake.
Night Snake.
Southwestern Black-headed Snake
Sonoran Mud Turtle, swimming in middle of river, large head emerged
from water.
Whiptail lizard, in dry upland desert.
Collared lizard, in dry upland desert. (Both lizards fell into an open
tank and perished.)
Many lizard and snake tracks, especially drier desert, but also
riparian and shore (drink).
Sonoran Spotted Whiptail,
Gila Spotted Whiptail.
Tiny, slender white “ghost” lizard scampering midday to shade of bush,
upper desert.
Belted Kingfisher: several seen flying rapidly, diving for fish,
issuing strident cry.
American Coot, floating at sides of river lower down near dam.
Osprey, solitary, near lower dam, flying high.
Ducks: Mallard, Northern Pintail, Green-Winged Teal.
Canada Goose.
Black Phoebe, several seen perched along river edge in trees, willows.
White Winged Dove.
Mourning Dove, seen frequently, cooing, rapid flight.
Several sparrow species.
Great Blue Heron, frequently observed. Was fishing in shallows, flying
overhead, crying out with hoarse cry.
Spotted Sandpiper, in rocky shores, picking among rocks for tiny
insects, etc.
Killdeer, on stony shores, rapid walk.
Gambel’s Quail. Frequent in inland riparian among bushes in large
White-Faced Ibis, on stony shore.
Red-Tailed Hawk, observed overhead.
Cooper’s Hawk, observed in thicket.
Purple Gallinule, crossing over shallow water overgrown with vegetation.
Common Mud Hen.
Black-Throated Gray Warblers.
Common Grackle, Frequent, white eye, gregarious, often around garbage,
picnic areas.
Turkey Vulture, common, circling overhead.
Red-Winged Blackbirds, several seen among cattails and in mesquite and
Abert’s Towhee, seen.
Cowbird, nest parasite. Observed in riparian thickets.
Common Merganser.
Gilded (Northern) Flicker.
Great Egret.
Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.
Whitetail Deer.
Mule Deer.
Spotted Skunk.
Raccoon, tracks seen.
Gray Fox.
Kit Fox, tracks.
Puma, or Mountain Lion, track seen.
Coyote, heard, track seen.
Badger, den seen.
Long-tailed Weasel, bank slide seen.
Many bat species are found in this Salt River habitat and feed on the
many flying insects here, helping in controlling their numbers and in
the process adding nutrients to the river and soils. I saw quite a
variety emerging during the late afternoon and early evening. Here are
some of the species (leaving out the word “bat”): Big Freetail, Pallid,
Mexican Big-eared, Pocketed, Freetail, Western Big-eared,
Silver-haired, Smooth-footed Myotis, Yuma Myotis, Long-legged Myotis,
California Myotis, Long-Eared Myotis, Fringed Myotis, Arizona Myotis,
Cave Myotis, Little Brown Myotis.
Cattle, many on north side of river.
Many rodent tracks, diverse species, both desert and riparian.

Gooding’s Willow, may be large tree size to 20’ high and broad.
Crabgrass, on shore.
Vetch on sandy island, horse food.
Prickly Pear Cactus, upland desert.
Saguaro Cactus, upland desert.
Barrel Cactus, upland desert.
Ocotillo Cactus, upland desert.
Blue Palo Verde tree.
Datura, or trumpet flower bush/tree.
Many Aster shrubs and forbs.
Several algae growing on stones, sometimes clustering into balls and
floating in river, especially still waters receiving nutrient-rich
waters, sewage, along edges of river.
Fremont Cottonwood trees. Interspersed amid Acacias, etc. Good nesting
habitat for birds and other animals.
Walnut trees, good food source for many birds, mammals.
Velvet Mesquite.
Arizona Ash trees.
Potamogeton aquatic vegetation.
Euphorbs, succulent plants at edge of river.
Various species of grass
Food of wild horse: Eelgrass, Willow, Cane Grass, Tamarisk (a.k.a..
Salt Cedar, an undesirable exotic species, wild horses could help
control or eliminate this.), Cattail,
Wild Squash.

Some Wild Horse Observations and GPS (Geographical Positioning System)
reading with corresponding observations of horses and other important

9/25/12: Band of 8 w/ 1 foal. Mid morning, upper river, eating.
Band of 6 w/ pregnant gray mare, mid morning, upper
Band of 6 w/ pink roan stallion & white stallion pursuing mares, mid
afternoon. mid river. Grazing. Later photographed
chase of white stallion by pink roan.

9/26/12: 3 bands of wild horses seen, one w/ 4 wh’s, 1 w/ 8 wh’s (same
as seen on 9/25), 1 w/ 3 wh’s. GPS: 33 d 32.720’ N; 111 d 40.264’W.
4,791’ elev. Time 12:32 pm. Horses feeding, grooming, bathing,
splashing. Many small flies about, some large horse flies also. Horses
swish tails, throw water, twitch skin to repel flies.
Another GPS taken where band of 6 observed to move to another area: 33
d 31.279’ N; 111 d 39.179’ W. 1,349’ elev. 2:53 PM.

9/27/12: Same band of 6 observed in earlier days, observed followed.
GPS: 10:32 AM. 33 d 32.366’N; 111 d 40.273’W. 1,327’ elev. On rocky
island. Tiny white “ghost” lizard seen, ca. 3” long. Slender, rapidly
ran to cover under tiny bush.
11:29 AM. Band of 7 wh’s spotted, including 2 adult roans and 1
yearling roan with red mane. Area of wh congregation. GPS: 33 d 32.545’
N; 111 d 40.305’W. 1,331’ elev.
11:40 AM: At 3-strand barbed wire fence, covered up to avoid wild horse
entanglement, repeat of Tango tragedy. GPS: 33 d 32.507’N; 111 d
40.325’ W. 1,363’ elev. Fence runs parallel to road. Pole #6. Hazardous
barbed wire here. Ocotillo, barrel, & saguaro cacti here. Whiptail
lizard trapped in open barrel, dead.
GPS at mailbox on road # 7322: 12:28 PM. 1,359’ elev. 33 d 32.503’ N;
111 d 40.361’ W.

4:30 PM: Met Retired man fishing from small inflatable boat in river:
Vaughn Dolle. He enjoys wild horses here and has observed them since
1967 (may substantiate the legal protection of Salt River herd under
the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 along with many
others, including Amerindians). He would miss them if removed and
feels they are harmonious here. Film interviewed by Simone. Lives

Important Information for literature search:
The Lower Salt and Gila River Ecosystem is one of Arizona’s IBA’s, or
Important Bird Areas. This is high in productivity of biomass due to
its constant supply of nutrient-rich waters. Fish here are among the
most abundant in the state, and hence so are the fish-eating birds,
mammals, etc. And there are various species of egrets, herons, and
cormorants. Least Bittern and Upper Clapper Rail also are common here.
The threatened Abert’s Towhee has its highest count here. The Audubon
annual Christmas Bird Counts occur here each year.

Raptors wintering in the river corridor include Northern Harrier,
Copper’s Hawk, Osprey, Red-Tailed Hawk, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Prairie
Falcon, Peregrine Falcon. Swainson’s Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk migrate
through here in fall and spring.

Ecological threats include Tamarisk invasion, loss of water due to
pumping and diversion. Risks to water quality come from herbicide and
pesticide run off and pharmaceuticals in effluent waters. Uncontrolled
human use of area disturbs nests and habitat. Much illegal dumping
occurs and some damaging and dangerous accidental fires. Invasive
Cowbirds are numerous and parasite nests of other birds.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Los Angeles District) was given an
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 contract to restore the
Va Shly’Ay Akimel Salt River Ecosystem between the Salt River
Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and Mesa, Arizona. This $645,000
contract funds Phase I involving ca. 2.5 miles along the river. It
plans to restore the riparian ecosystem to support native vegetation
and wildlife. This project runs a total of 14 miles between Granite
Reef Dam and the SR 101 freeway.

The Salt and Verde Riparian Ecosystem is an IBA that is also germane to
our project to protect the wild horses. It encompasses two rivers: the
Salt and the Verde. The Salt River section of the IBA extends from
Saguaro Lake’s Steward Mountain Dam along the riparian corridor of the
Salt River west to the Verde Rive confluence. The Maricopa Audubon
Society conducts the Salt and Verde River Christmas Bird Count each
year that includes a portion of this IBA. This IBA contains ca. 1/3 of
all Bald Eagle nest areas in Arizona. Nesting here are the
Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Lucy’s Warbler,
Abert’s Towhee, and the Common Black Hawk, all “Species of Conservation
Concern”. Recreation uses, including boating and ATVs, disturb
nesting birds. ATV’s impact flood-plain vegetation and cause erosion.
Species on the Audubon list that I observed include: Gambel’s Quail,
Northern Pintail, Common Merganser, Gilded (Northern) Flicker, Great
Blue Heron, Great Egret, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Abert’s Towhee.

The 12-mile Salt River portion of the IBA is located in the Tonto
National Forest, except the last 3 miles downstream. In the latter,
the north side of the Salt River is within the Salt River Indian

Fremont Cottonwood, Gooding’s Willow, and Arizona Ash are the dominant
riparian species present in the flood plain habitat. In the lower
section, Velvet Mesquite, Saguaro, Blue Palo Verde, Foothill Palo
Verde, and Ironwood are the dominant upland trees.


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