April 15, 2019
Deb Walker can’t wait to get back out on the Nevada range doing what she loves — working with wild horses.
And after a forced 18-month hiatus from administering birth control drugs to free-roaming mares, there is plenty of work for Walker and other volunteers.
“Right now, every mare on the range is pregnant,” said Walker, who volunteers as a spotter through the American Wild Horse Campaign.
A spotter’s job is to identify mares that haven’t received birth control for darters, volunteers with air rifles that fire darts with birth control into the mares’ haunches.
“The darter’s job is to get that dart in that mare’s butt,” said Walker, a retired math teacher from Fish Springs, Nev., near Gardnerville. “We want it to go into the right butt.”
Walker and her colleagues are returning to the field in large part because Assembly Minority Leader Jim Wheeler, R-Gardnerville, convinced Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to restore a program to enable volunteer darters to work with the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
Wheeler and Jeffrey Berns, founder of Blockchains LLC, which owns 67,000 acres in the Virginia Range east of Reno, met with Sisolak last month to explain that it’s important for horses and people that volunteers get back to work.
“We really were concerned this program had been stopped and there was no indication it was going to get started anytime soon,” said Sarah Johns, public relations director for Blockchains.
“We had been made aware it was entirely possible the horses on our property could double in size without a darting program in place,” Johns said.
The previous darting program fell apart on Oct. 25, 2017, when Nevada Department of Agriculture officials terminated a privately funded agreement that enabled volunteers associated with the American Wild Horse Campaign to manage horse issues on the Virginia Range.
At the time, agriculture officials accused the volunteers of failing to live up to their end of the deal. Volunteers denied the accusation.
The program covered an array of horse management activity, including darting horses with the birth control drug PZP.
After terminating the agreement, the agriculture department board voted to offer the approximately 3,000 free-roaming horses on the range at no cost to anyone willing and able to manage them. There were no takers.
Since the giveaway gambit failed, the horses have remained on the range with none of the management work by volunteers.
'It is a very urgent situation'
Based on the results of the first two years of volunteer-run darting, the time that’s passed without birth control has resulted in nearly 400 foals that wouldn’t have been born with darting in place.
Unless volunteers get to work quickly, the number will grow even higher, Wheeler said.
“It is a very urgent situation,” Wheeler said. “Next year there will be another 2,000 foals on that land if they didn’t get to it right away.”
Sisolak and Nevada Department of Agriculture Director Jennifer Ott, who Sisolak appointed in February, declined multiple interview requests.
Controlling the horse population on the range is important for both horses and people.
That’s because both suffer when the horse population outgrows what the range can sustain. Horses suffer when food and water are scarce. People suffer when hungry and thirsty horses cross roads and move into human communities looking for food and water.
According to the latest available data from the Nevada Department of Transportation, in 2017 there were 53 car accidents statewide involving horses that resulted in 10 injuries and one fatality, which occurred near the Virginia Range on U.S. Highway 50 near Stagecoach.
“We have to stop the problem now,” Wheeler said.
Once headed for slaughterhouse
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.
Prior to agreements with volunteer groups, horses rounded up from the range were eligible for auction where they could be purchased for slaughter. The agreements gave the non-profits a chance to facilitate adoptions for captured horses. Since 2013, when the first agreement went into effect, the group secured adoption for more than 200 horses.