RENO - Wild horse protection advocates saved dozens of free-roaming horses in Nevada from potentially ending up at slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico when they purchased them Wednesday night for about $10,000 at a state auction.
"It goes to show the love and respect that not only Nevadans have for the Virginia Range horses, but also the people across the country and around the world who contributed money needed to purchase these horses back from the state of Nevada," said Shannon Windle, director of the Hidden Valley Wild Horse Protection Fund.
"I feel fantastic," she told The Associated Press from the auction house in Fallon Wednesday night shortly after writing a check to the state for $7,720 for 29 of the 41 horses up for auction, along with one unrelated, older Shetland pony.
"Now we have to find placement for about 100 horses," Windle said about the backlog of horses the group has purchased at previous similar auctions.
State officials put the mustangs up for sale after capturing them because of the danger they pose wandering onto state highways southeast of Reno.
Windle said she recognized at least two bidders at the auction who would have sold the animals for slaughter. But she's confident a group from nearby Stagecoach that bought eight horses and the individuals who purchased the rest will help protect the mustangs.
Final figures won't be available until Thursday, but Windle said each of the horses sold for prices in the range of $250 to $300, which would total in the range of $10,000. Additional money is needed to temporarily house and feed the animals.
"The cost of buying the horses is just the tip of the iceberg," said Carrol Abel, a member of the Hidden Valley group.
Most of the financial support has come from the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a national coalition of more than 50 groups including the Humane Society of the United States, In Defense of Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
So far, the coalition has provided the Hidden Valley group with a check for $20,000, "and donations are still coming in for the care of the horses," campaign director Suzanne Roy said Wednesday.
The stray horses don't enjoy federal protection because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management determined long ago there were no wild herds on federal land in that area when Congress passed the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Bureau Act in 1971.
Instead, these "feral" or "estray" horses are considered property of the state.
Nevada officials believe there are about 2,500 of the animals on private and state lands near Virginia City. More than three dozen have been hit since summer on three rural highways in Lyon and Storey counties around Silver Springs and Virginia City.
"We are damn lucky nobody has gotten killed," Nevada State Agriculture board member Ramona Morrison said last week.
Until this summer, the state made the horses available to advocacy groups for purchase before proceeding to public auction. But that policy was suspended in August after one group re-released the animals to the range in violation of the sales agreement.
The advocates had urged Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to call off the auction and turn the horses over to them for free. Sandoval acknowledged he received 18,000 letters and faxes to that effect but said he believed the state Agriculture Department was bound by its own rules and regulations to round up the horses and sell them.
"There is no reason not to conduct the auction," he told the Las Vegas Sun on Tuesday.
Campaign spokeswoman Deniz Bolbol said the donations to save the horses came from around the world, including Europe, Canada and South Africa.
"The powerful grass-roots response to the plight of these 41 horses sends a clear message to every politician and government official engaged on the wild horse issue: citizens across the world value Nevada's mustangs and expect the government to protect them," she said.
Sandoval's press secretary, Mary Sarah Kinner, said Wednesday that state agriculture officials had "productive meetings" in recent days with national advocacy groups including the campaign coalition about "proposed future solutions to managing feral and estray horses while also protecting the safety of the public."
"Discussions are ongoing," she said in an email to AP on Wednesday.
Bolbol said they look forward to working with Sandoval and the state on a plan that benefits "both wild horses and Nevada taxpayers."