Wild Horses in Storey caught in political trap

A black mustang was hit by a car and killed in Gold Hill just south of Virginia City at about 2 a.m. on Dec. 1.

Part of an ongoing tragedy, he is now a hollow statistic: One of 12 unnamed and unknown to die following accidents on local roadways during the past three months, according to Darryl Petersen of the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

Most officials agree these animals are forced into populated areas by lack of feed on the range, good management is the key to saving them and ore animals need to be removed to maintain a healthy range, but the consensus stops there.

For months, Storey County and the agriculture department have been at odds concerning an agreement to manage the county's Virginia Range wild horses.

With very little federal land, Storey County's horses do not come under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management. All wild horses are considered the property of the state and in Storey management of these animals has been a cooperative effort between the county, the Department of Agriculture, and the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association.

The protection association initially played a key role, acting as an agent for Storey County to protect and preserve the horses and the county had a separate agreement with the agriculture department.

The latter agreement was terminated in September, following a rift over the terms. Olivia Fiamengo, president of the nonprofit association's board, said the welfare of these animals hangs in the balance.

"We were providing the bulk of the adoptions," she said. "The agreement was nullified and now we aren't legally able to do rescue or adoption work. That creates a real hardship for these horses."

The agreement was terminated at the behest of the state department following a decision by the Attorney General's Office. Deputy Attorney General Gena Session said their primary legal concerns revolve around the lack of a termination clause, something the agreement lacked and something require by Nevada Revised Statutes. Control is also an issue, according to Paul Iverson, executive director of the department of agriculture.

"If we're going to be responsible for these animals, we have to be given the ability to manage them," he said. "We shouldn't be stuck in an agreement we can't change."

Fiamengo argues the agreement worked for six years and that the lack of a termination clause is a technicality.

"Mr. Iverson would like us to be an agent and find homes for these horses, but we have no say in how they're managed. Why should we contribute hundreds of volunteer hours and $75,000 per year when there is no guarantee these animals will be protected," Fiamengo said. "With the cooperative agreement between Storey County and the Department of Agriculture gone, Storey has no voice in how these animals are handled.

"Our real concern is that the Department of Agriculture has no written management plan that defines how these horses are managed," she said. "Right now they have a policy agreement that holds no one accountable and we're requesting that a written management plan be in effect."

Commissioner Greg "Bum" Hess is not optimistic about reaching an agreement.

"The range is in such bad shape. The horses are in terrible shape and there are no deer," he said. "We wanted to have control of how many are moved and we wanted the VRWPA and the Department of Agriculture to work with us. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that's going to happen."

The agreement proposed by the Department of Agriculture stipulates that once corralled, the animals can be sold at auction after 60 days; another of the protection association's concerns, according to Fiamengo.

"They're susceptible to meat buyers at that point," Fiamengo said. "I don't think Mr. Iverson wants to be in a position where he is selling them for slaughter, but there's nothing to preclude meat buyers from coming to a sale and buying horses. There's nothing to control who buys them, or what happens to them after they're sold."

Agriculture officials argue that since the program's inception six years ago, not one horse has gone to slaughter. They work only with qualified nonprofit adoption agencies, and depend on them to find homes for these animals.

But that would not apply to those sold at a public auction and before the loss of this agreement, the association was one of their primary adopters.

"We once adopted 130 horses in 11 months and in my opinion, Mr. Iverson is going for sale authority when he has the ability to place these animals through another avenue," Fiamengo said.

The most recent estimates indicate a population of about 900 wild horses in the Virginia Range, 360 square miles that can comfortably support about 550, said a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fiamengo asserts that the sustained removal, key to a successful program.

"In June of 2000, the state agreed to start pulling about 20 to 25 horses off the range per month, but that never happened," she said. "We geared up to find homes for these horses, but we never saw them removed in those numbers."

Budgetary constraints were the primary factor, according to Iverson, who complained he has just one part-time employee for those removals.

For removal, horses are baited with hay and water in a small corral and the process depends on local residents closing the gate. The method has met with resistance from neighbors who watch and love these horses and Department of Agriculture officials must get the permission of private property owners. Some will work with them and some won't.

Uneven removal of horses from the range and management by crisis has been the result, according to both Fiamengo and Iverson.

"It's been a nightmare for us," Fiamengo said. "We could use some public assistance and I'm appealing to the public, to write letters to Governor Guinn."


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