Wild horses have garnered significant attention from the national media in recent months as government agencies, Congress and horse advocates debate the best way to manage swelling horse populations in states across the West.
The $1.3 trillion dollar spending bill Congress has yet to approve has been a hot topic in the news, with the expiration of temporary funding for government operations drawing nearer. And the final language of the bill may have a significant bearing on the future of wild horses.
An amendment to the 2018 Interior Appropriations bill introduced by Republican Chris Stewart of Utah was passed by the House Appropriations Committee. It would allow the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees wild horses protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, to cull horses it deems to be in excess of the number public rangelands can support. In the Senate, however, the Appropriations Committee’s budget language prohibits using funds to destroy horses (or sell them slaughter).
The Senate and House only have until March 23 to reach an agreement on final spending bills for 2018. And, meanwhile, the 2019 budget process has begun, and the Trump Administration is keen to push for fewer restrictions on what can be done with excess wild horses.
Wild horses have also been in the news as the result of a recently published study. The study, published in the journal Science, analyzed the genetics of the Przewalski’s horse, long considered to be the only remaining wild horse group in the world. But DNA tests revealed the animals were descended from domesticated horses and later returned to the wild—meaning, according to the researchers, they’re feral, not wild.
With the Przewalski’s horse now falling under the designation, “feral” is a word that technically applies to all undomesticated horses.
Of course—hairsplitting on nomenclature aside—there are in fact many “wild” horses in the Western United States. The BLM estimates their numbers at more than 100,000—and more than a third of those are kept in off-range corrals and pastures. In Nevada alone, there are nearly 35,000 wild horses. What many in the Truckee Meadows may not know is that the locally beloved wild horses that roam south Reno and the Virginia Range are not counted among them.
What’s in a name?
In the state of Nevada there is a legal difference between a wild horse and feral one. Wild horses are protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Feral horses—escaped or abandoned domestic horses and their progeny—are not. Feral (or “estray”) horses fall under the ownership of the Nevada Department of Agriculture. The nearly 3,000 horses living in the south part of Reno and the mountains to its east are considered feral. They’re known locally as the Virginia Range horses, and, for years, they’ve been managed by a cooperative agreement between the NDA and the nonprofit horse advocacy group American Wild Horse Campaign.
After terminating its management agreement with the AWHC late last year, the NDA announced that it was seeking requests for proposals from people willing to take ownership of the Virginia Range Horses. Now, ahead of the April 16 deadline for new potential owners to submit their applications, the AWHC has announced that it will sue the NDA in an attempt to stop the department from relinquishing the Virginia Range horses.
During a March 12 press conference in Reno, AWHC Executive Director Suzanne Roy announced the lawsuit—fueled in part, she said, by fears over what may happen to the horses under new ownership.
“By the department’s own admission, the new owner will have absolute property rights to do what it wants with the horses, including sell them for slaughter,” she said. “So this is a very dangerous turn of events that the state has decided to follow here. So we are going to court, in state court, this week to stop this illegal action.”
The audience in attendance at Roy’s press conference booed at the mention of the NDA and the Nevada Board of Agriculture, which made the decision in an eight-to-one vote to purge the Virginia Range horses from among its department’s property. Wild horse advocate and author Terri Farley’s sentiments echoed Roy’s concerns over the fact that the deciding board is comprised of unelected members.
“Past the point of them being horses, I am really concerned that an unelected board is giving away a state resource,” Farley said during a March 9 interview. “I think that is a really scary precedent. There are elected boards that deal with historic buildings. What if they decide to give those away? They’re not doing anybody any good. They’re not making anybody any money. That’s the rationalization they used for the horses.”
According to Roy, the Board of Agriculture’s decision violates the law. Chapter 569 of Nevada Revised Statutes deals with feral and estray livestock, which fall under the jurisdiction of the NDA. In 2013, the statute was revised to allow the NDA to partner with other organizations and agencies in the management of feral livestock. Prior to this, the statute only covered the NDA’s right to partner with other groups in the “control, placement and disposition” of feral livestock. Basically, a bill passed through the legislature in 2013 added to the statute the word “manage”—allowing for groups like AWHC to help the NDA with things like caring for wild horses on the range, running experimental fertility-control programs and facilitating horse adoptions.
According to Roy, though, it is different language in NRS 569 that makes the board’s actions illegal. Roy said NRS 569 has some specific requirements that must be met before the horses can be liquidated.
“That involves individual identification, branding, advertisement—a whole list of things they have to do before they can dispose of the horses,” she said. “And then, once they do that, they have two options. They can sell them through a registered sales agent, or they can place them through a cooperative agreement.”
The laundry list of tasks Roy referred to are things the NDA must do before selling “estray” livestock. Estray, as defined by the statute, means livestock showing “signs of domestication,” including things like brands. Before these animals can be sold, the department has to publish several weeks of notices in a newspaper with full descriptions of the animals, including things like “brands, marks and colors.”
According the statute, the sale of feral livestock also requires that notices first be published in the newspaper. However, a closer look reveals language that doesn’t corroborate Roy’s claim about the pre-sale requirements placed on feral livestock. NRS 569.075, section 2, pertaining to the sale of feral livestock, states that a notice of sale “need not include full descriptions of the feral livestock, but may include such information and details as the Department determines necessary.”
But Roy and other wild horse advocates remain hopeful. During her press conference, Roy shared the results of a recent survey of Nevadans by Public Policy Polling in which 75 percent of respondents said they think the NDA should continue its nonprofit partnership for the care of the horses. Of course, 17 percent responded “yes” to the question of whether the department should “transfer ownership to a private owner who could legally round up the horses up and send them for slaughter.”
The NDA—in its statements, and in an online question-and-answer segment on its website—maintains that it is very specifically seeking “a reputable animal advocate organization” that “will work to keep the horse population on the range and will facilitate adoptions of any horses removed from the range.”