The few dozen horses roaming along the Salt River east of Mesa have galloped into the attention of thousands of tubers, kayakers, photographers and even online fans from around the world as romantic symbols of the West.

But as the U.S. Forest Service begins to study the herd and plan its future, equine advocates have elevated the horses’ profile by warning the animals are at risk of being slaughtered to control their numbers.

A Salt River Wild Horses page on Facebook posted an alert May 31 that triggered a flurry of protest. The Tonto National Forest has fielded a groundswell of calls and emails in the past week, spokeswoman Paige Rockett said. Tonto officials deny an imminent roundup, or that they’ve made any decision about the animals.

The equine advocates point to an April 4 letter they obtained through a Freedom of Information Act stating Tonto officials are considering removal of feral horses. Rockett said removal is an option that must be evaluated, but that critics have read too much into Tonto’s early discussions.

“What is very, very upsetting is the almost definitive way that it was stated on the Internet message was ‘imminent roundup.’ I think the term slaughter was in the headline,” Rockett said.

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