By Benjamin Spillman, Reno Gazette-Journal
Opponents of Nevada’s plan to give away nearly 3,000 publicly owned, free range horses in the mountains east of Reno are cranking up the legal, political and financial pressure against the plan.
On Monday Lance Gilman, a Storey County Commissioner who helped recruit Walmart, Tesla, Google and others to the industrial park he founded in the horses’ habitat, made an impassioned plea to Gov. Brian Sandoval to tell the state’s agriculture department to abandon the idea.
Leaders of the American Wild Horse Campaign, the non-profit that once had an agreement with the state to manage the horses and administer birth control to mares, joined Gilman.
They delivered the results of recent polling in Nevada that showed 75 percent of respondents oppose the giveaway and outlined their legal objections to the giveaway plan. Advocates also said the giveaway would violate Nevada law and put the horses in danger of slaughter. They said they're planning to go to court to stop the plan, but have yet to make any legal filings.
“You see the energy in this room, these folks are not going to quit, and I certainly am not,” Gilman said following a speech in Reno to about 40 horse advocates.
He was talking about fighting a December decision by the Nevada Board of Agriculture to issue a request for proposals from non-profit groups that would be willing to take ownership of horses on the Virginia Range.
The horses live similarly to wild horses that roam throughout Nevada and the west. But they’re legally distinct because they’re under state, not federal, control. As such, they’re not covered by federal laws and regulations that restrict roundups of horses for slaughter.
In 2013 and 2015 Nevada Department of Agriculture signed cooperative agreements with American Wild Horse Campaign under which the volunteer organization would manage the horses by rescuing the sick and injured, support adoption of the animals, administer birth control to mares and help to keep horses from roadways and other places where they could be a safety hazard.
The agreement fell apart in October with both the non-profit and the department accusing each other of failing to live up to the terms.
“Our goal is to get the state to come back to the table to negotiate cooperative 2.0,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the non-profit.
Photo: Nancy Killian
Roy described the breakup of the agreement and the subsequent giveaway plan as, “a very dangerous turn of events for the horses.”
Specifically, the campaign says there are four major problems with the plan.
The first problem, they stated, is that it violates the intent Sandoval and the Legislature expressed in 2013 when they approved legislation authorizing the state to work with a non-profit to manage the animals.
Second, they said by giving the horses to a private group Nevada would be violating state law that covers ownership transfers of livestock. Specifically, they said Nevada law would require the state to identify individually each animal to be given away.
Third, the advocates say once the horses are given away the state would be unable to prevent the new owners from selling the animals for slaughter.
And fourth, although the intent of the plan is to keep the horses on the range under new ownership, the advocates say state law for livestock management and public safety would make it virtually impossible for a non-profit to manage the animals in their habitat.
“The plan fundamentally violates state law,” Roy said.
In a written statement Nevada Department of Agriculture Director Jim Barbee said the goal is to ensure the horses go to an organization that can keep manage the population and keep the animals safe, healthy and on the range.
"Per the RFP, the intent is to place the ownership of the (horses) with a reputable animal advocate organization that has the experience, knowledge, tools, resources and financial ability to manage the horses according to their needs," Barbee said. "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."
He also said the department would work with the Nevada Attorney General's office to follow livestock ownership transfer laws.
In addition to the legal questions, Roy also touted a recent poll that showed strong political support for keeping the horses publicly owned and on the range.
The poll, commissioned by the campaign and conducted March 9-10 by Public Policy Polling, showed 84 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents preferred state ownership of the animals to the giveaway plan.
“It really shows that Gov. Sandoval and the state are just plainly on the wrong side of this issue,” she said.
During his talk Gilman said he supported the American Wild Horse Campaign’s efforts to prevent Nevada’s giveaway plan, which advocates say could result in the horses being handed over to an ownership group that could herd them off the range and sell them for slaughter.
The horses, he said, are a unique symbol of Nevada’s history and culture and play a prominent role in attracting businesses to move to the area.
Gilman cited Walmart’s use of horse imagery in marketing material and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk featuring the horses prominently on his social media accounts.
More recently Blockchains, LLC., a technology company that recently became the largest landowner in the park, confirmed it supports efforts by Gilman and the horse advocates to block the proposed transfer.
In short, Gilman said the horses are much more valuable to Nevada when they’re flourishing on the open range.
“We are not covered in asphalt, we are not covered in concrete,” Gilman said. “There is a lot of room for those horses to roam.”
The event Monday marked an escalation of Gilman’s public involvement in the issue.
He’s previously written letters opposing the giveaway plan and urging Sandoval to direct Nevada Department of Agriculture Director Jim Barbee to backtrack on the plan, which the department board approved in December.
“I’m really reaching out to Governor Sandoval,” Gilman said. “It is a pretty simple thing for him to put a mediator on place and we will get an alternate outcome.”
In a written statement Sandoval responded: "Since Mr. Gilman is now threatening litigation, there will be no further comment from the Governor’s office."