A team of horse counters took a day-long helicopter trip around the Virginia Range to find out how many wild horses were there.
They found 1,448.
That number presented a bit of a puzzle for Jeanne Gribbin of the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association, who said fewer horses seemed to be in the Virginia City Highlands this year, and they are sorely missed.
The horses usually spend the summer in the Highlands and move to lower elevations come wintertime, she said.
"Is there a reason why they are not on their normal migration?" she asked. "We don't know, and we depend on the horses to keep down the fire fuels in Virginia City and the Virginia City Highlands."
That question as well as a longstanding disagreement with the Nevada Department of Agriculture on just how many horses were on the range, and how many the range could support, led Gribbin and her organization to arrange for a helicopter horse count on Monday.
Longtime wild-horse advocate and former VRWPA president Olivia Fiamengo, who has done five helicopter counts, was joined by Dr. Keith Forbes, a veterinarian from the state Department of Agriculture on his first count, to collaborate. They were aided by helicopter pilot John Kelly of El Aero Services, who has done horse counts for more than 30 years, he said.
The trio, using hand-held counters to aid them as well as forms listing the number of bands and with a space for the number of horses in each band, lifted off at 7 a.m. and kept going until 5 p.m., except for a couple of refueling stops.
It turned out many of the region's wild horses were in Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, normally their winter grazing area.
"I'm worried because there is a reason why the horses' natural migration isn't happening," Gribbin said, adding that she and her fellow advocates would go out on horseback or ATV and make sure there were no fences or other barriers keeping the horses from migrating.
Some horses ran at the sound of the helicopter blade, but some just looked up at it. Many horses were lying down and enjoying the summer sun; others would graze and still others were on the move.
"They are the laying-est-down horses I've ever seen," Kelly said.
"They're happy horses," Fiamengo responded.
The goal was to cover as much of the horses habitat on the Virginia Range, which stretches from the Truckee River to the Carson River, and from east of McClellan Peak to Highway 95A near Fernley. They covered at least 90 percent of the area by traveling in a zigzag motion.
First they zigzagged around Mound House, north to Silver City, American Flat, Gold Hill and Virginia City. Then through the Virginia City Highlands and north to Lagomarsino Canyon and Lockwood.
Few horses were in Mound House, Silver City, Virginia City or even the Highlands, but more were found in Lagomarsino and at the Lockwood Landfill.
Though there weren't many horses in the traditional locations, Fiamengo said she saw plenty of water and forage.
After refueling, the helicopter headed over McClelland Peak toward a section of land formerly owned by TRW Inc., and later proposed for the Cordevista subdivision that was turned down by Storey County commissioners.
A majority seemed to be in the Clark Mountain area between the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center and the Cordevista property. Other places with larger bands were Lagomarsino Canyon, the Lockwood Landfill, Mustang and the high mountains along the Lyon-Storey County border north of Stagecoach.
There were also a few bands southeast of Fernley and some even loitered along Highway 95A between Fernley and Silver Springs.
However, there were still vast expanses of areas with few or no horses, including most of Silver Springs, the hills north of Dayton, Mark Twain and behind Sutro.
What wasn't a good sign was a series of corrals and water tanks on a dirt road north of Ramsey Weeks, on the TRIC property.
"You can't get there without a key to the gate (of TRIC)," Fiamengo said, wondering what the corrals were doing there. There were no horses around, and although cattle dotted the landscape, especially to the east, none were near the corrals.
The ones that were there, said Fiamengo, looked healthy.
"These guys are looking very good," she said. "I've seen a few real skinny ones, but I think they were probably just old."
Forbes was less inclined to judge the condition of the animals.
"We're up in the air, we're not right next to them, so it's hard to give an evaluation," he said. "They look like they were moving pretty good, so that's a good sign."
The count was made possible with a $10,000 grant from Horse Power Wild & Free, which distributes funds raised from the sale of the wild horse license plates in Nevada.
•Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 881-7351.
BY THE NUMBERS
1,448 - number of horses counted on Monday.
1,220 - number of horses estimated by Nevada Department of Agriculture head Tony Lesperance
ON THE NET
http://www.vrwpa.org - Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association
http://agri.state.nv.us/ - Nevada Department of Agriculture