Wild horse advocates want Nevada to reverse a decision they say puts free range horses between Reno and Carson City in grave danger.
More than a dozen gathered in front of the state capitol building Wednesday to call on Gov. Brian Sandoval to intervene.
Protestors want the state to reverse a decision by the Nevada Board of Agriculture to relinquish ownership of an estimated 3,000 horses roaming the Virginia Range.
It's not clear if the governor, who appoints agriculture board members, has authority to override board decisions.
“Our horses stand for our history and our freedom,” said Beverly Iubelt of Washoe Valley. “Nevada is a special place because of them.”
On Dec. 12 the board ordered staff of the Department of Agriculture to issue requests for proposals from private, non-profit entities to take ownership of the horses.
The decision was a departure from existing policy which considers the state owners of the horses and relies on private, non-profits to manage the herd.
“The status quo was not working,” said Boyd Spratling, the Board of Agriculture member who proposed relinquishing the horses. “The advocates were not happy with it the Department of Agriculture was for sure not happy with it.”
Horse advocates say relinquishing ownership altogether would be bad news for horses and people who enjoy them roaming the range because there would be nothing to prevent private owners from removing them and selling them at auction.
“There are no responsible private entities that would protect the horses and leave them on the range,” said protest organizer Louise Martin of Reno.
Wild horses are considered an iconic symbol of Nevada and the west. By virtue of state ownership, the Virginia Range horses are legally distinct from wild horses on Bureau of Land Management property.
But their visibility near Reno, Carson City and Dayton means that to casual observers they are as symbolic as horses under federal control, which are protected from slaughter through federal laws and regulations.
“I love the horses because they are free,” said Peggy Deal, of Dayton. “They are the only thing that are free in this country or this world, the only other things are eagles and coyotes.”
Symbolic or not, the horses are also considered a management headache for the Department of Agriculture.
That’s because they wander onto roads and into developments where they can pose a safety hazard.
Additionally, the department has little to no funding to keep the animals out of trouble or help them when they’re sick or injured.
In recent years, the department relied on volunteers to manage the herd. The volunteers came through the American Wild Horse Campaign and related entities. The Campaign, and later a related entity, signed a cooperative agreement with the department to provide management services, including administering birth control to horses.
The agreement fell apart in October when the department accused the volunteer group of failing to live up to its end of the deal. The volunteers say they fulfilled their obligations and the department was wrong to terminate the agreement.
The volunteer community was surprised by the decision by the agriculture board to seek to unload the horses altogether.
After the vote board member Dave Stix estimated it would take six weeks or longer for the department to issue requests for proposals with specific criteria.
“We are hoping to let the governor know we haven’t given up yet,” said demonstrator Dorothy Nylen of Dayton. “We are not going to give up.”
Although the demonstration was designed to get the attention of Sandoval the governor is unlikely to intervene.
"The Governor believes the best course of action is for the protesting group to work with the Department to ensure public safety while properly managing the Virginia Range population," Sandoval spokesperson Mari St. Martin said in response to the demonstrators.
Complete statement from Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval in response to wild horse advocate demonstration is below.
It is unlikely that the Governor can or would overturn the board’s decision. The department has assured the Governor that the request for proposal will include criteria requiring that any organization who partners with the department will have a demonstrable history of animal preservation to avoid the unrestricted sale of the horses, the resources needed to own and manage feral/estray livestock, and can manage all aspects of the Virginia Range feral/estray horses, including administering fertility control, reducing and preventing public safety issues, and cooperating professionally with area residents, businesses and governments. The Governor believes the best course of action is for the protesting group to work with the Department to ensure public safety while properly managing the Virginia Range population. -- Statement from Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval