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After a bitter falling out, Nevada agriculture officials vote to transfer ownership of mustangs

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

The relationship had been tense for months.

By the time the Nevada Department of Agriculture terminated its agreement with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign in late October, the groups were barely communicating. They could no longer see eye-to-eye. For months, the nonprofit and the agency claimed that a 2013 agreement had been breached. The deal, once seen as a solution to avoid sending Nevada horses to slaughter had become the latest sideshow in the fierce debate over managing wild horse populations in Nevada, one that often pits advocates against agricultural interests.

On Tuesday, the Nevada Department of Agriculture board ditched the agreement and directed the state agency to transfer ownership of about 3,000 horses on the Virginia Range near Reno.

“There is so much passion around this issue,” said Jim Barbee, who directs the department, which oversees the state’s livestock, including feral horses. “I get that. I understand that. [But] there is so much responsibility to adhere to the state’s laws that it’s just an absolute challenge.”

Barbee described the move, which passed the board 8-1, as a step toward transferring responsibility of the horses to a non-profit with resources to care for the horses. He argued that the move would give local parties more say in management. But during more than two hours of public comment, dozens of horse advocates said the action could put the horses at risk of slaughter.

One commenter referred to the plan as a “death warrant.”

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign came with a letter from an attorney: “It is our opinion that transfer of ownership of the Virginia Range horse herd violates NRS Chapter 569.”

The statute governs how the department handles feral livestock.

A representative for the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center asked the board not to vote on the plan, saying that mustangs are a big draw for businesses, like Tesla, looking to locate at the park.

“They won’t build in a site that has poor or sloppy environmental management,” said Kris Thompson, the project manager for the industrial park. “This kind of agenda item would drive people away…. The Virginia Range horses are a global phenomenon in the business world.”

As proof, he submitted an Instagram post from Tesla CEO Elon Musk (viewed 736,000+ times) that shows mustangs near the Gigafactory and an MSNBC Money article about the post.

Through the Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Range horses are property of the state. In effect, the board’s proposal called for the wholesale adoption of the mustangs, which would remove the responsibility from the state and make them the property of a third-party group.

Nevada’s horses but on federal land

To understand how Nevada got into the business of managing horses on land that does not belong to the state, you need to understand the complex laws that govern Western horses.

In 1971, Congress required the Bureau of Land Management to protect wild horses as a symbol of the West. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act defines a “wild horse” as a horse that is unbranded or unclaimed. Horses that are domesticated but escape are “feral horses.”

After working to reduce populations in the Virginia Range in the 80s, the BLM declared it a “wild horse free area.” That meant legally there were no horses that fell under the jurisdiction of the federal government. But there were some horses that remained on the range — feral horses.

“The BLM recognized the difficulties that they were going to have in that area,” Barbee said after the meeting on Tuesday. “When they depopulated that [herd management area] and declared it wild horse free, in one fell swoop it changed the status of any remaining horses there.”

The responsibility for these horses then fell to the state. With a few exceptions (like the BLM’s wild horses), states play the primary role in managing wildlife. The horses, in effect, became the state’s issue, as feral livestock, which the agriculture department oversees.

Horses are successful in the wild, with few natural predators and a tough digestive system. And the Virginia Range herd grew and grew to its current population of about 3,000. On a fact sheet, the department said it can only support 300-600 horses, citing a 2001 range inventory report. Advocates contest these findings, arguing that the report only surveyed a fraction of the range.

Still, the department said overpopulation caused problems. Several horses were killed in traffic accidents, and homeowners in the Virginia Range would complain about horses in their yards.

When the department rounded up excess horses, they could be adopted by advocates or sold to an auction, at which point the state would transfer ownership of the horse. Barbee said during his tenure, to the best of his knowledge, advocates adopted all the horses that went to auction.

But the word “auction” can make an advocate’s skin crawl. Once the state transfers its ownership of the horses, a new owner could send the horses to slaughter. U.S. slaughterhouses closed when the federal government defunded inspections in 2007. But horses can still be sent to slaughter across the border, a practice that put the BLM under scrutiny, ProPublica reported.

Amid outcry over the auctions in 2013, advocates reached a deal with the state. The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign would enter into a cooperative agreement with the agency.

In a press release at the time, one advocate called it a “win-win solution.”

The cooperative agreement falls apart

On Oct. 25, Deniz Bolbol, communications director for the wild horse campaign, was sitting at her desk when she received an email from the state agency. It was marked “Importance: High.”

"I saw an email from the department and I knew it was bad news,” said Bolbol, who served as the campaign’s point-of-contact for the cooperative agreement. “They never contact me."

The letter informed her that the department had decided to terminate their agreement, and it came as a surprise to Bolbol. It left her suspecting that there was an ulterior motive at play.

"It's political or personal, or both,” she said. “I don't know which."

Although the relationship between the two parties had frayed — both claimed breaches in the original agreement — Bolbol was confident that they could still resolve their differences.

From the department’s perspective, the letter was a long-time coming.

“AWHPC’s refusal to perform all management portions of the agreement prevented the group from fulfilling the goal of the agreement, which led to this decision,” the termination letter reads.

The department said it was also concerned about public safety in the area.

“Since mid-July 2017, more than 43 horse-vehicle collisions have occurred in the Virginia range area, including 28 incidents on highway 50, 5 incidents in south Reno and more than 10 incidents on USA parkway,” Chris Miller, an agriculture enforcement officer said in an email.

The cooperative management agreement began to break down in 2016 after the wild horse campaign proposed an amendment to the agreement and subsequently focused their efforts on a birth control program rather than management. Bolbol said that an official who is no longer with the agency, agreed verbally to the amendment. But the department had never signed onto it.

Meanwhile, the wild horse campaign — believing it had the department’s blessing — began operating as if the amendment was in effect, shifting its focus from management to birth control. In its letter, the department cited the campaign’s shift to birth control as a reason for termination.

To Bolbol, this rationale is Kafkaesque.

It took more than a year for the department to terminate the agreement after the amendment was proposed (Barbee said the delay was because of the legislative session and turnover).

And she said the reason her group proposed the amendment was because the agency had breached the cooperative agreement, the same thing they accused the campaign of doing. She said the department circumvented the agreement by working with local groups on management issues, potentially leaving the wild horse campaign, which had an insurance policy, liable.

“I can't be legally liable for stuff like that,” she said.

The department said it had a responsibility to resolve immediate public safety issues.

During the July 2016 meeting, our enforcement officer said it became clear that AWHPC was not able to quickly respond to public safety threats, when [Bolbol] indicated her staff and volunteers did not possess any of the equipment necessary to move feral horses (like a horse trailer),” Doug Farris, the department’s Animal Industry division administrator wrote in an email.

After the letter in October, both sides took their grievances public. The advocates called on Gov. Brian Sandoval to intervene. Barbee wrote an op-ed for the Reno-Gazette Journal. Groups that had once pledged to work cooperatively were accusing each other of spreading misinformation.

Preventing horses from going to slaughter

Then the Nevada Board of Agriculture, which oversees the department, stepped in. One of the board members requested that an item be added be added to the board’s December agenda.

The agenda item, approved Tuesday, directed the department to transfer ownership of its feral horses to “a non-profit animal advocate organization through a request for proposal process.”

It’s goal, the department said, is to give the horses to a non-profit group, like the Humane Society, that could administer their management and prevent them from going to auction.

“It is the intent of this motion to find a reputable, historically known organization,” Barbee said.

Sandoval’s office released a statement on Tuesday saying that “the governor is supportive of the Department of Agriculture working alongside any organization that will humanely help manage or adopt the Virginia Range horse population.”

Barbee said the department had already spoken to groups that might be interested. The next step is drafting a request for proposal, which will be reviewed by the attorney general's office.

Horse advocates have their misgivings and worry that a group, once the horses are their property, could send the horses to an auction and they could end up being slaughtered. Some of their wariness stems from a board discussion in 2011 about slaughtering horses.

Dozens of advocates showed up in Sparks to testify against the plan. Some suggested that transferring ownership would favor agricultural interests that have feuded with advocates over federally-controlled wild horses.

“There are backroom deals being done, and there is a bigger play in motion here,” said a commenter in Sparks. “This is government working against the people and instead working for special interests.”

In an interview after the vote, Paul Anderson, who chairs the agriculture board, said he would never have placed the motion on the agenda if he suspected foul play.

“In no way have I heard that there is any backroom deal,” he said. “It was disheartening to [hear] the comments that were coming through, thinking that we were out to do some evil deed here.”

At the end of the day, even Barbee conceded that the state can only do so much to ensure that the horses do not end up at a slaughterhouse. Once horses are adopted, they leave the state’s jurisdiction.

“There are no absolutes in this life we live,” he said at the meeting. “At the end of the day, they would become private property and [their owner would] have, as such, private property rights. That’s no different than the horses we have previously adopted out to [nonprofit] organizations like we’re discussing. Once that brand slip is written out and signed by both parties, they are no longer our property. They are the property of the entity they have been adopted out to.”

Over the years, the BLM has faced similar wariness with its adoption program. In 2015, a government report found that more than 1,700 federally-controlled horses were sent to slaughter, despite agency policy to prevent such sales.

In its sale contracts, BLM asks that buyers agree to “not knowingly sell or transfer ownership of any listed wild horse and or burro to any person or organization with an intention to resell, trade, or give away the animal for processing into commercial products.”

Tossing the problem to someone else?

In some ways, the federal government saddled the Department of Agriculture with this problem. The department is not the state’s chief wildlife agency, yet they are managing 3,000 horses.

The plan to transfer ownership allows for more local control of the horses, Barbee argued.

“This pushes it to a local issue,” Barbee said. “It removes all of the static of it being at the state legislature, to where the people that are really impacted — the people that really see those horses every day and care greatly for those horses — can directly communicate with what hopefully will be a new organization that owns the horses and come up with solid plans.”

Some worry that could come at a cost to city services and local law enforcement.

Reno Councilwoman Naomi Duerr said the city would prefer working with a government, rather than a nonprofit in managing the wild horses. She said there is concern that management and enforcement could fall to local law enforcement.

“If you move forward with passing the horses to a third-party, our concern is that you would be passing part of your unfunded mandate onto us,” Duerr said at the meeting.

Although Duerr remained neutral on the proposed motion, she said that the board should consider giving the cooperative agreement one more chance.

But agriculture officials are frustrated with the status quo.

“As a cattle rancher, we have been dealing with the federal government and state government for years,” said David Stix, one of the board members. “But the government, in some cases, cannot do certain things, and one of the things is manage animals… [The BLM] has done a very poor job managing and I think the state has, {too}."

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