Nearly 3,000 free-range horses in Nevada’s Virginia Range could be under new ownership by the end of May, according to state officials.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture on Tuesday published a request for proposals for people willing to take ownership of the iconic herd.
Opponents of the proposed giveaway say it “spells disaster” for the herd, which many consider symbolic of Nevada’s western culture.
The proposal is the result of a breakdown between the Nevada Department of Agriculture and the American Wild Horse Campaign, the non-profit organization once had an agreement to manage the horses on behalf of the state.
“The NDA set the stage to destroy the Virginia Range horses by canceling the community-based cooperative agreements for humane management,” Deniz Bolbol, spokesperson for the campaign said in a written statement. “That’s unconscionable and we will not allow it to stand.”
In October the department cancelled the agreement with the campaign, saying the volunteer organization wasn’t fulfilling its end of the bargain. The group disputed the department’s characterization and accused state officials of undermining the deal by inviting third parties who weren’t part of the agreement to conduct management.
In December the department went a step further and voted to terminate the state’s ownership of the horses altogether.
The RFP issued Tuesday is essentially an attempt to find a non-profit entity willing to take ownership of 2,951 horses.
“The intent, as outlined by the board during their meeting and in the RFP, is to select an owner that will work to keep the horse population on the range and facilitate adoptions of any horses that need to be removed from the range,” department director Jim Barbee said in a written statement.
The RFP seeks a, “reputable animal advocate organization that has the experience, knowledge, tools, resources and financial ability to manage the horses according to their needs. It is intended that the selected owner will work to keep the horse population on the range and will facilitate adoptions of any horses removed from the range.”
But opponents of the plan say once the state gives the horses away there would be little to no leverage for the new owner to maintain the animals on the range.
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 Virginia Range horse population includes all feral and estray horses roaming in the area bounded by U.S. Highways 395 to 95A, Interstate 80 and U.S. Highway 50, according to the department.
“Should the plan to giveaway the horses proceed, the public would no longer have any say into how these beloved horses are managed and treated,” the campaign said in a press release.
The department’s RFP seems to acknowledge that after the ownership transfer the new owners would be in control of the horse’s fate.
“Once this transfer occurs, the NDA will have no liability or authority to make decisions about the (horses) so transferred,” the document states. “The owner will be subject to all federal, state and county laws, ordinances and regulations pertaining to livestock.”
According to the timeline in the RFP after responders submit proposal there would be a proposal opening on April 16. That would be followed by an evaluation by a committee of local, state and federal officials.
A selection of new owners and transfer of ownership could occur by May 15.