RENO - A rash of accidents involving motor vehicles and abandoned domestic horses on three rural highways in northern Nevada is prompting the removal of as many as 100 of the animals from the range.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture is taking the action after more than 30 horses were hit by vehicles over the last seven weeks on U.S. Highway 50 between Dayton and Silver Springs, Alternate Highway 95 near Silver Springs and State Route 341 near Virginia City, agency spokesman Ed Foster said.
While authorities were unaware of any fatalities or serious injuries to people, most horses involved were either killed or had to be euthanized.
"We are astounded that something more catastrophic to people hasn't happened," Foster said, adding the number of such accidents is the highest he's seen in his 11 years with the department.
The problem is being caused by stray horses that are coming down from the Virginia Range in search of forage and water, he added. The state agency is tasked with managing roughly 2,500 horses in the range, which is mostly privately owned.
Plans call for the department to collect from 50 to 100 of the horses over the next month near Alternate 95 and U.S. 50 around Silver Springs, which is about 35 miles east of Carson City.
"With four major highways as basically borders of the range, and with as many horses as there are on the range, conditions point to a potential public safety crisis," Foster said. "We're not willing to just wait and see what happens."
Under state law, captured horses will be put up for auction. The 1971 federal law that protects herds of free-roaming mustangs does not apply to "estrays," which are strays or descendants of horses abandoned by private owners over the years.
Federally protected wild horses can't be legally sold for food, but estrays can be sold for eventual slaughter in Mexico or Canada.
Willis Lamm of the horse advocacy group Alliance of Wild Horse Advocates accused the agriculture department of exaggerating the extent of the horse-vehicle collisions, and of creating the problem by failing to renew agreements with nonprofit groups to control the animals' movements.
"The problem is no one is managing the movement of horses anymore," Lamm said. "It has encouraged some people to feed the horses, and the end result, as wild horse advocates predicted, is you're going to have an acceleration of horse-human conflicts along these valley corridors, and here you have it."
Lamm said he's unsure whether horse advocates will try to buy the horses at auction to keep them from going to the slaughterhouse.
"The advocacy groups are in a moral dilemma. They want to save the horses, but they don't want to subsidize a system that's gone wrong," he said.
The Nevada Highway Patrol issued a warning to the public after two horses were struck and killed on State Route 341 near Virginia City in separate accidents in late September.
The highway is dotted by yellow caution road signs warning motorists of the horses. Motorists turning off from U.S. Highway 395 onto the highway also are greeted by a flashing sign with the symbol of a horse.
"Motorists should be extra vigilant of horses near or crossing the highway, especially around blind curves and during the hours of darkness," NHP Trooper Chuck Allen said.