Nevada officials have terminated a privately-funded agreement that’s kept hundreds of free-range horses from western Nevada's Virginia Range without resorting to slaughter.
The agreement provided a framework for state officials to work with a non-profit to control the horse population through capture, adoption and birth control drugs.
Controlling the horse population is critical because overpopulation results in increased instances of horses on roads, in communities and in distress.
Consequences of unchecked horses can be deadly. On Sept. 30 Andrew Corbin, 26, died after the SUV he was driving collided with a horse on Highway 50 near Stagecoach.
Still, the Nevada Department of Agriculture on Oct. 25 killed the deal with the non-profit American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign because, state officials said, the non-profit refused to hold up its end of the bargain.
“Our number one priority is to protect public safety, and that requires collaboration between state, local and nonprofit partners,” Jim Barbee, director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture said in a written statement announcing the termination. “In addition to working with a coordinating partner, the NDA can assist local law enforcement with removal of feral horses upon request.”
Leaders of the non-profit dispute the state’s account and accuse Nevada officials of undercutting the agreement by operating outside terms of the deal.
“We never refused to do anything,” said Deniz Bolbol, communications director for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. “They started circumventing the agreement.”
Unlike wild horses that roam much of Nevada under the jurisdiction of the federal Bureau of Land Management, free-range horses in the Virginia range are considered feral or “estray” livestock and fall under state jurisdiction. That means they aren’t protected by federal regulations that restrict the sale of wild horses for slaughter.
The dissolution of the management agreement means that, at least for now, a program both sides credit with helping to control horse populations in the Virginia range without costing taxpayers or sending the iconic animals to slaughter is at a standstill.
“The last thing we need with shrinking habitat due to development is more horses,” Bolbol said. “These horses are in dire straits.”
Controlling the horse population, thought to be about 2,500 to 3,000 horses at present, is important because wandering horses are dangerous to drivers and their numbers could exceed the ability of the land to support them.
Prior to the deal, horses rounded up from the range were eligible for auction where they could be purchased for slaughter. The agreement gave the non-profit a chance to facilitate adoptions for captured horses. Since 2013, when the agreement went into effect, the group secured adoption for more than 200 horses.
Another agreement in 2015 authorized willing non-profits to manage herds under state jurisdiction, which facilitated adding birth control to the management strategy.
The drugs, which are administered with dart guns, are credited with preventing nearly 350 births.
At the time, Barbee described legislation to authorize non-profit management as, “a win for everyone involved.”
Under the terms of the agreement the non-profit, not taxpayers, paid for the work. It controlled cost through heavy reliance on volunteers.
“It was very successful, working really well,” Bolbol said.
Dispute that killed the deal
Barbee says the termination has roots in an amendment the non-profit proposed in July of 2016.
The proposed amendment sought to eliminate sections that covered trapping, adoption or relocation of horses.
Such an amendment, Barbee said, would have reduced the role of the non-profit to primarily darting mares with contraceptives and left the state to find someone else to manage horse-related public safety issues.
Barbee said he supports darting but added it’s not a core part of the legislation that authorized the department to cooperate with a non-profit to manage horses in the range.
“They only wanted to basically do the darting portion,” Barbee said. “The darting is not the priority for us because darting doesn’t affect public safety.”
Bolbol tells it differently.
She said the agreement fell apart after state officials started authorizing horse management activity by people who weren’t part of the deal.
That was a problem because, Bolbol said, it meant third parties were conducting diversionary feeding and other activities without going through protocol outlined in the agreement, such as securing written permission from private property owners in advance of activity or diverting horses with food without using it as an opportunity to administer birth control.
Further, Bolbol said the third-party activity, while well-meaning, was a threat to the established non-profit. That’s because the non-profit was required to carry a $1 million insurance policy Bolbol said protected both the organization and the state. Third-party activity outside of the agreement, she said, put both at risk.
“If people are doing these things I have a cooperative agreement, I am legally liable,” Bolbol said.
Additionally, she said state officials were slow to respond to requests for authorization from the non-profit even as they authorized others to conduct measures such as diversionary feeding.
The lack of coordination, she said, put the non-profit in a jam. Without ready cooperation from state officials it was unable to perform tasks authorized in the agreement.
“The department of ag has jurisdiction over the horses, if they don’t say we can do it we are not allowed to do it,” Bolbol said.
Barbee confirmed the state authorized work with third parties who weren’t covered by the agreement. The state, he said, has a legal responsibility to manage the horses for public safety with or without the agreement. Barbee also said the third-party work didn’t begin until after the non-profit proposed the amended agreement on July 18, 2016.
“We did not sign their amendment but did seek out additional advocates to fill in where AWHC's work stopped,” Barbee said in an email. “Feral horses are state property, and as such, all feral horse management activities in the Virginia Range are … only done with approval from the NDA. The cooperative agreement does not override the NDA’s authority and responsibility to public safety.”
Bolbol disputed the claim. She points to at least three incidents in which she said the state authorized work outside the agreement prior to the proposed amendment.
In July of 2015 Bolbol said a member of the public notified the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association, which is a party to the agreement, of a lame horse in the Virginia Highlands area of Reno.
The volunteer responders checked on the horse and determined the best course of action would be to leave the horse alone. Bolbol and Robert Maccario, president of the association, said the terms of the agreement and prior discussions with the state favored leaving the animals to fend for themselves unless intervention was necessary for public safety.
“Unless it is a public safety issue we try not to interfere with the natural cycle,” Maccario said.
Despite that decision, Bolbol said, a member of the public who was not part of the agreement called the agriculture department and the department authorized care for the horse.
In another instance in January of 2016, Bolbol said the state authorized moving a family of horses from the range to Marvin Picollo School. The school has horse boarding facilities. Although the horses were boarded at the school for months, they weren’t given birth control, which is a requirement for horses gathered under the agreement, Bolbol said.
In a third instance in June of 2016, Bolbol said the state authorized relocation of a herd of horses near Reno without notifying the non-profit even though the non-profit had already called state about relocating the same horses and not received a response.
“What we know is because volunteers working under the (agreement) tried to help and get the action in conformance with the (agreement) protocols but were told (Nevada Department of Agriculture) was handling it with the private individuals,” Bolbol said in an email.
Barbee disputed Bolbol’s characterization of the incidents as circumventing the agreement. Each instance, he said, was in response to immediate public safety risks which the department is authorized to handle under the agreement.
“During all three instances, we were acting within our authority and responsibility to protect public safety,” Barbee said.
Chris Miller, the department’s senior agriculture enforcement officer who was on scene at each incident, said the department chose not to arrange administration of birth control for the horses boarded at Picollo because it’s on the grounds of a school.
“We would never request nor approve of bringing a darting weapon onto school property,” Miller said in an email.
Barbee also said the non-profit would not be liable for activity conducted outside the agreement.
Bolbol concurred the department has legal authority to operate outside of the agreement but by doing so undermined the effectiveness of it.
"They stopped responding to anyone associated with the cooperative," she said. "If they don’t respond to me I can’t authorize anything. It became a quagmire."
What’s next for the horses
Without a cooperative management agreement, the Nevada Department of Agriculture is left to manage horses on the range.
But the department, Barbee said, doesn’t have money to pay for the level of management the non-profit provided.
“The Legislature did not want to fund a horse management program for the Virginia range,” Barbee said. “It is an unfunded mandate.”
He said the department will look for another non-profit partner but that could be difficult given the demands.
To qualify as a partner the group needs to be a legally designated non-profit with the capability and funding to carry out the management duties.
“We want to try to get something sooner than later,” he said.
Barbee added the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign could submit another bid and begin a new partnership.
“If they wanted to resubmit then we would look at it,” he said.
But Bolbol said that’s unlikely.
She wants Gov. Brian Sandoval, who signed the bipartisan legislation that expanded the partnership program, to intervene by directing the Nevada Department of Agriculture to rescind its termination notice.
In an email statement a spokesperson for Sandoval wrote that the governor, "continues to support the state partnering with non-profit management organizations to help manage Nevada’s unique wild horse population," with a combination of birth control, adoption and keeping horses away from danger areas. Sandoval didn't express a preference for which non-profit or address the termination of the deal with Bolbol's group.
Bolbol said the situation as it stands is bad for horses and people.
“There is no other group that has the capacity to do what we do,” Bolbol said. “If you really wanted to do what is right for the horses you would continue the program until you had another one up and running.”
Entire statement from Gov. Brian Sandoval regarding Nevada Department of Agriculture termination of agreement with non-profit group to manage horses on Virginia Range:
“This is a complex issue that has to consider first and foremost, public safety, but also preservation of the Nevada’s unique horse populations and ecological sustainability. Overall, the State is seeking to remediate public safety issues, improve rangeland and horse population health, reduce conflicts involving horses and citizens, and protect private and public property. Ensuring the safety of Nevadans and families traveling in south Reno and near the Virginia Range Area is a priority for the Governor. Additionally, proper management and preservation of our horse populations is also a responsibility that he recognizes and expects the Department of Agriculture to manage in collaboration and partnership with local organizations. The Governor continues to support the state partnering with non-profit management organizations to help manage Nevada’s unique wild horse population. These partnerships should include a combination of practices to manage feral livestock including fertility control, adoption, diversionary feeding and watering and managing stray horses which often enter into residential and high traffic areas.”