"Hey hey BLM, why not let our horses stay?" and "We love our mustangs" were the rallying cries of around 50 people protesting a scheduled roundup of wild horses outside the Bureau of Land Management State Office in Reno on Tuesday.
This July, the BLM is slated to remove and prepare for adoption up to 50 horses from the Fish Springs near Gardnerville — a move that has received pushback from community members who enjoy the horses' presence and say they attract tourism to the area.
On Tuesday, members of the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates and the American Wild Horse Campaign delivered around 170,000 petition signatures from people "across the world," according the groups' press release, to BLM State Director Michael Courtney.
This came less than a week after 300 residents packed into the Fish Springs Volunteer Fire Department to discuss the decision to round up the herd. With "no additional information or comment" to add, BLM staff didn't attend the meeting, according to an email from the agency to the Advocates.
With the petition, the wild horse groups hope to persuade the BLM to reduce the number of horses taken from the herd — at last BLM count around 80 — and instead allow the nonprofits to continue volunteer darting operations with contraceptives.
"We've already darted 35 mares and boosted about half of them just in 2018," said Deb Walker, president of Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates. "It's done by 100 percent volunteers with 100 percent donations."
The groups also want the agency to "leave all family bands intact."
"People come from all over the world to see our horses. We have 44,000 world followers on Facebook," added Walker. "They bring tax dollars into our community and this will unfortunately curb that if they are gone."
But the BLM says it's operating on a federal mandate to manage the number of wild horses in the state — and overpopulation is destroying the habitat and resources for other native wildlife.
"Currently the range in that Pine Nuts area cannot support the number of horses along with the amount of natural wildlife that exists out there. We've got to get that balance back," said Jenny Lesieutre, Nevada wild horse and burro public affairs specialist at BLM.
"As of March 1 there was a wild horse population of about 775 horses (in the Pine Nut Herd Management Area), and the high appropriate management level is 179."
(Fish Springs is located just outside of the management area, but the horses filter back and forth over the boundary, according to Lesieutre).
Lesieutre says there isn't enough water and food in the Fish Springs habitat to support the current population.
It's true across Nevada, which at last count has 44,000 wild horses — nearly three and a half times what the agency has determined as the high appropriate management level.
Darting contraception is only between 68-86 percent effective, said Lesieutre, and only "slows the population growth."
"It is a great tool once you're at appropriate management levels because what that does is expand the time between when you need to remove horses from the range."
The BLM last rounded up 67 wild horses living outside the management area in November 2010, including a herd in Fish Springs. The contraceptive pilot program began in 2014, was temporarily stopped in 2016, and reinstated the following year.
Ultimately it's unclear if the petition will change the BLM's plans for the round up this month.
"I couldn't answer that. We are mandated by law to manage horses," said Lesieutre. "And management means just that — to not let them prolifically keep breeding and destroying all other wildlife in the range. We are following the mandates of Congress for the long-term benefit of the horses."
Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates' Walker couldn't speculate on the outcome either.
"This is Washington telling the local BLM what they have to do," said Walker. "They have some discretionary power. They could come to the table and they have done some compromising with us, but there is more that needs to be done."