Wild and estray horses are a growing problem along Highway 50 east of Carson City, but frustrated members of the state Board of Agriculture say they have little power and no money to do anything about it.
But horse advocates say the problems of overpopulation and horses too close to homes and highways were created by policy changes enacted by department Director Tony Lesperance when he took over three years ago.
Horses living in the Virginia Range routinely cross Highway 50 between Carson City and Dayton seeking food and water. The road has seen 13 accidents involving horses in the past four of years. The result: 13 dead horses and two injured drivers.
"It's just a matter of time before someone gets killed on that road," said Ramona Morrison, a board member from Nye County.
"I'm an animal lover as much as the next guy but I feel like we've got to be able to manage these horses," said Board Chairman Alan Perazzo of Fallon. "I don't care who takes over, they've got to be given the authority to manage them humanely, not just to put them out on a range with no feed."
While members of the board, an 11-members appointed panel that oversees the Department of Agriculture, didn't say so directly, it was clear that "manage" means to reduce the herd by killing horses.
The Department of Wildlife, Morrison said, "manages by numbers, by hunts."
The Wildlife Department manages every wild species in Nevada except horses. The Bureau of Land Management manages wild horses on federal land, but horses on state land are under the purview of the Agriculture Department.
Wild horse advocate Willis Lamm said former Agriculture Director Paul Iverson had agreements worked out with advocacy groups to help with costs and to adopt out excess horses. Lamm said that system worked and that Iverson's successors Don Henderson and Donna Rice continued those arrangements.
He said Lesperance shut down the cooperative agreements with advocacy groups and even ended a program to control the Virginia Range herd with birth control measures when he became
"There was a birth control program going when I arrived here," said Lesperance. "The results did not look very effective and we did not have the funds to continue it."
Lamm and Bonnie Matton of the Wild Horse Preservation League said the horses come down from the hills because they have found food there but that they can be re-habituated to live and feed up the hill near American Flat instead of along the highway.
"We need a diversion plan to control the movement of horses by feeding them in specific places, to rehabituate them to their former territories," said Lamm.
Matton said residents in the American Flat area between Dayton and Gold Hill want the horses there.
"They would really like to have the horses brought up there and they will feed them through the winter," she said.
At the same time, they called for much stronger enforcement of laws prohibiting people from setting out the food and water that draw the horses to places where they are in conflict with people and vehicles. Then, in the spring, she said the horses would likely stay at American Flats.
Having the horses away from the roadway but along the route of the V&T Railroad, Matton said, would provide a great boost to tourism efforts in the area.
"We have tourists come from, literally, all over America to see our horses and they'll pay really good money."
Lesperance said American Flat would be a solution for probably about 50 horses but that there are 1,600 horses in the Virginia Range.
"This would not begin to take care of the majority of the horses," he said.
He said he agrees the horses are a tourist draw and said that concept should be expanded, fencing off range for the animals all the way from the Truckee River east of Sparks to Highway 50.
To help pay for managing them, he said there should be "a roundup every year."
"Make it a public relations event," he said. "If you had a roundup and pulled some of the better younger horses out of there for sale, you might be able to raise quite a bit of money."
Just removing the horses, he said, would be very costly.
"Even selling to Mexico does not remotely pay for the cost of removal," he said, adding that a roundup of just 500 animals could cost the state $100,000.
Matton said the ultimate answer to controlling the size of the herd is birth control. She and Lamm said that program was all being paid for by the federal government, the University of Nevada, Reno and the companies making the birth control drugs.
"It's criminal what Mr. Lesperance did cutting off the birth control program." she said adding that roundups don't cure the problem because the horses continue to breed.
Lesperance said the other funding didn't cover the cost of the program and, "I have zero money."
Federal officials at BLM said birth control is the direction their program is headed, but Lesperance said BLM is "just looking at anything that will get pressure off of them."
"They're getting beat up every time they turn around," he said.
The horses in the Virginia Range aren't, legally, wild horses. Wild horses are those under Bureau of Land Management control and running on federal lands, protected by federal laws which make killing or taking one a felony.
On the Virginia Range, the herd consists of estray and feral horses. Estrays are domesticated horses that either ran away or were turned out by their owners. Feral horses are like wild horses. They have no markings or other signs of ever being domesticated. The primary difference is they are on state or private lands, not on those federal lands protected under the 1972 Wild and Free Ranging Horse and Burro Act.
Lamm said legally, estrays are like unclaimed private property held by the state. They can be disposed of with little fanfare but, if the rightful owner shows up within a year, he or she gets the money from the sale.
Because feral horses are state property they can't be disposed of like estrays. Like any other state property, selling them requires a public process, which draws a lot of public attention and protest from those who fear the likely buyers will send them to slaughter.
"They've created their own dilemma, their own monster," said Matton.
Lesperance said feral horses on private lands have no legal protection. He said, unfortunately, the ultimate solution will probably happen after someone gets killed hitting one of those horses and their survivors sue the corporation that owns the land. Nearly all that land is private and corporate-owned.
"When the first death occurs, some smart lawyer will sue the landowner, then they (the landowners) will take matters into their own hands," he said. "Once the first lawsuit occurs, those horses will be in great jeopardy."
BLM estimates there are 20,000 wild horses on public lands in Nevada. That represents more than half the free roaming wild, feral and estray horses in the nation. It is also about 2,000 more horses than were roaming free in Nevada a year ago.
BLM officials say through birth control and other methods, they want to reduce that total to 12,600, the number experts believe the range can sustain.