By Scott Sonner, The Associated Press
RENO - Wild horse protection advocates were confident they had raised enough money to buy 41 horses at a state auction in Nevada on Wednesday, animals they feared otherwise would be headed to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.
Carrol Abel of the Hidden Valley Wild Horse Protection Fund said she could not estimate the total cost but was prepared to spend thousands of dollars if necessary at the auction late Wednesday in Fallon, about 60 miles east of Reno.
"Once we get them, they'll be placed in safe pasture and we'll be looking for (permanent) homes," Abel said.
The vast majority of the money was raised by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a national coalition of more than 50 groups including the Humane Society of the United States, In Defense of Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Campaign spokeswoman Deniz Bolbol confirmed they believed they had collected enough money to keep the mustangs out of the hands of so-called kill buyers.
The stray horses don't enjoy federal protection because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management determined long ago there were no wild herds on federal land in that area when Congress passed the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Bureau Act in 1971.
Instead, these "feral" or "estray" horses are considered property of the state, which captured them because of the threat they pose to motorists when they wander onto state highways along the Virginia Range southeast of Reno.
State officials believe there are about 2,500 of the animals on private and state lands near Virginia City. More than three dozen have been hit since summer on three rural highways in Lyon and Storey counties around Silver Springs and Virginia City.
"We are damn lucky nobody has gotten killed," Nevada State Agriculture board member Ramona Morrison said last week.
Until this summer, the state made the horses available to advocacy groups for purchase before proceeding to public auction. But that policy was suspended in August after one group re-released the animals to the range in violation of the sales agreement.
Abel said she didn't know the exact amount of money the groups had spent at previous auctions to save a total of 99 horses in recent months, but she was confident it totaled in the tens of thousands of dollars. Abel said that in at least one instance, they had to pay an average of about $341 per horse - twice the normal price - because others bid up the price.
"And the cost of buying the horses is just the tip of the iceberg," Abel said in reference to additional unspecified costs to transport, feed and temporarily house the animals while seeking permanent homes for them.
The advocates had urged Gov. Brian Sandoval to call off the auction and turn the horses over to them for free. Sandoval acknowledged he received 18,000 letters and faxes to that effect but said he believed the state Agriculture Department was bound by its own rules and regulations to round up the horses and sell them.
"There is no reason not to conduct the auction," he said Tuesday. His office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Bolbol said the donations to save the horses came from around the world, including Europe, Canada and South Africa.
"The powerful grass-roots response to the plight of these 41 horses sends a clear message to every politician and government official engaged on the wild horse issue: citizens across the world value Nevada's mustangs and expect the government to protect them," she said.