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Nevada is blessed with wild horses

by Linda Hiller

From Las Vegas to Winnemucca, Nevada is blessed with the presence of wild horses and burros.

Many residents of the United States will go through their entire lives without ever seeing either species in the wild, but in Nevada the odds are pretty good of seeing both.

In Douglas County, horses are seen often enough by many residents living in outlying residential areas, that the herds periodically become a polarizing topic, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

n The spark that started it. A Sept 2 roundup of 13 mustangs in the Fish Springs area east of Gardnerville angered many residents who mostly objected to the federal policy requiring herd management control.

There were also those who found themselves defending their own objections to the wild horses infringing on their property.

“I am a horseman and have lived here since 1977,” said Gene Hammerlun, 57, of Fish Springs. “Over the years it has become clear to me that feral horses and subdivisions don’t go together. I hate to make enemies, though, and this has caused a lot of tension out here.”

Neighborhood tensions over wild horses is nothing new to the Carson Valley, the state of Nevada or other states, for that matter. National publications are rife with articles such as “Troubled Herds,” “What’s Best for the Mustangs,” and any number of controversial topics.

n It’s no wonder. Almost from the giddyup, it was as though horses and humans were meant to interact. Sixty million years ago, the first horses began to appear on the earth. Small, fox-size “dawn horses,” or Eohippus (“hippus,” for horse), they were many-toed, forest-dwelling leaf eaters – a far cry from today’s horse.

For tens of millions of years, the different horse species evolved, increasing in size from the original 10-20 inches to nearly 4 feet tall approximately 7 million years ago.

n Ancient human history. Approximately two million years ago, humans appeared on the scene. In the beginning, horses were hunted as food for man, as evidenced by abundant equine bones found in the archeological dig sites of early humans.

Around 9,000 years ago, horses were extinguished from North America. In fact, the only true wild horse species to survive into the 1900s was Przewalski’s horse, last found in Mongolia.

n Let’s climb on their backs. The idea of riding on horses didn’t come about until around 1,000 years after their initial use as draft animals.

In the early 1500s, Spanish explorers brought horses back to North America, where native horses had been extinct for thousands of years. The descendants of these horses are our modern day mustangs. The first wagon trains West from the East Coast were pulled by oxen, not horses.

Even today, the power of motorized vehicles is measured in “horsepower.”

n It’s no wonder we care. With this incredible history in mind, it becomes easier to understand why so much emotion surfaces every time the subject of wild horses comes up.

For many years, wild horses and burros in the United States were anybody’s property. Abuses happened, natural population highs and lows occurred and ultimately the number of these ungulates (hoofed animals) dwindled.

Studies of the behavior of truly freeliving wild horses are scarce, since many species have been eliminated and few purely wild animals exist.

“Feral horse herds are generally led and protected by a senior stallion, who fights off other stallions, protecting and breeding the mares in his herd,” Hammerlun explained. “The lead mare is the real leader of the herd, though. She decides where they will go and when.”

Colts are usually chased away after weaning by the herd’s stallion, he said, preventing eventual inbreeding. These bachelors form their own groups or remain solitary.

Hammerlun said it didn’t take long after the roundup of horses Sept. 2 for a new herd to find its way near Fish Springs again.

“They are territorial and when one herd moves out, others will move in,” he said. “This new group is not as desensitized to humans as the last bunch, but if people put out food and water it won’t take long before they become a nuisance and it’s another no-win situation for everyone.”

n Good news and bad news. Responding to the population declines in the 1960s, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 was enacted to try and take the reins on an uncontrolled situation.

The act placed herds living on public lands under the protection of the United States government. Since 1971, the law has proved to be good and bad.

The Fish Springs roundup was a good illustration of that dichotomy. The good news is, the Pinenut horse population is being kept in check so food is plentiful for all horses. The bad news is, in order to do that, some horses must be removed from the area from time to time.

The good news is, horses taken out of the wild go to adoption areas where they may eventually be taken in by caring people. The bad news is, violations have occurred.

n Not the bad guys. The BLM, the overseers of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, are required to respond to a minimum of complaints against wild horses on private land. If the complaint is legitimate, they are also required to remove, or as they call it, “gather,” the horses.

A 1997 census found an estimated 43,000 wild horses in the U.S., up from approximately 17,000 in 1971. Though critics often question the accuracy of BLM counts, experts agree that horses are effective and prolific breeders.

“The BLM is a multiple-use agency and we are required to walk the center of the road and still maintain the herd,” said Sharon Kipping, manager of the adoption center in Palomino Valley. “We are not in the business of horse breeding.”

At the Palomino Valley Adoption Center on the Pyramid Highway east of Sparks, 1,696 horses currently await adoption. Most will be transferred to other adoption centers throughout the country, Kipping said.

“We only adopt out about 200 horses here each year, but we prepare approximately 4,000 horses to be shipped out to other adoption centers all over the U.S.,” she said. “We have more wild horses here than most states. When we get horses in from a gather off the herd management areas, they’re a little sore-footed from the running. After all, they are a large animal and we know the gather can be traumatic.”

Kipping said that while most of the horses that come in are shipped out to other locations for adoption, older stock is not gathered and instead left out on the range.

Following attention to any treatable medical conditions, the horses they are allowed to rest and eat well at Palomino Valley, Kipping said.

“The average horse is here for eight to 10 weeks,” she said. “They need time to settle down and adapt. We will not ship them out before their time.”

Kipping said the 10 Fish Springs horses were in good shape when they came in last month, and added that two of the horses will be returning to the area.

“A Fish Springs man came in and is adopting two of the horses and will be taking them back there,” she said.

n Want one? You must qualify. Those wishing to adopt either a mustang or burro must go through an approval process before adopting, Kipping said. Adoptees need a corral a minimum of 400 square feet, with a fence 6 feet high made out of chew-proof metal or wood that is well marked so the horse doesn’t injure itself. A shelter from the weather is also required, she said. A maximum of four horses can be adopted per year.

Kipping said the BLM requires those who adopt horses to keep the animal for a year and after that year, upon passing inspection, they will be issued a certificate of title. Throughout the first year in their new home, BLM officials can and may inspect the horses.

“Just the fact that you know they are coming to inspect at any time keeps owners on their toes,” Kipping said.

Everyone who works with the wild horses at the adoption center is there because they love horses, she said.

“Many of us have adopted horses,” she added. “I ride dressage and use my own wild horse for it. If they have the athletic ability, these horses can do anything, the same as any breed.”

To showcase the wild horses, each June a national wild horse and burro show is held in Reno. This year’s show featured, shows, adoptions and a “horse whisperer” who helped horse owners communicate with their animals.

For questions about the horses, call the Palomino Valley Adoption Center 475-2222 or the BLM at 885-6000.

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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