Concerns growing over wild horses along Highway 50
February 3, 2018
A University of Nevada, Reno expert in range ecology said the Intermountain West, specifically Nevada, is experiencing a major problem with the overpopulation of wild horses.
Dr. Barry Perryman, a professor with the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources, described his concern management areas aren't being administered effectively, and the number of wild horses is causing problems with the ecosystem. Horses in the Virginia Range, which includes most of Storey County and extends east into Lyon County, has also raised concerns for the Nevada Department of Agriculture and local law enforcement agencies, specifically in Lyon County, because of motorists hitting horses on U.S. Highway 50.
Perryman recently made his comments in Fallon during the annual Cattlemen' Update, a program that visited communities in Northern Nevada to discuss topics ranging from cattle producing to climate trends. The Nevada professor, though, said horses, cattle and sheep can lie together on the range, but the rising number of horses each year keeps putting more strain on the ecosystem.
"We have about 87,000 horses on BLM land and that's not counting forest service or the reservations," he said. "About half of those are mares."
Also, some 45,000 horses and burros either live in Bureau of Land Management or privately-contracted holding facilities such as the National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley north of Sparks or the Indian Lakes Off-Range Wild Horse and Burro Corral near Fallon.
Nevada has the largest number of wild horses, he said, with about 33,476 in horse management areas (HMAs). Perryman said a solution to reduce the herd — which he calls impossible — is to give the mares contraception vaccines, but he added that process would take 30 years. Additionally, he said the vaccine would have to be given yearly or biennially.
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"The scale of the problem is impossible to deal with on the range," he said for administering the vaccine. "But it does make sense to get the population down, range-wise. Management does make sense."
Perryman echoed the same dire warning he had penned in an article for "The Daily Caller:" "Every day, more and more rangeland ecologists, scientists, academicians, habitat specialists, and wildlife managers are concluding that our nation has reached a crisis stage in horse and burro management. We urgently need a reset to reduce populations to manageable levels.
"Not only are horses and burros increasingly vulnerable to massive starvation, the ever-expanding population is destroying precious habitat that other wildlife, including the most vulnerable and endangered species, depend on."
Perryman said at the Cattlemen's Update the federal government isn't doing its part to control the burro and wild-horse population as directed by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA) passed in 1971 to protect wild horses and burros on federal land and to place them under the jurisdiction of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.
Perryman said Congress isn't doing enough with funding. Additionally, the CABNR professor said lawmakers in the nation's capital haven't allocated enough money to BLM to control the wild-horse numbers, thus causing the population to boom to an all-time high. He also expressed concern if the West encounters another catastrophic drought, the horses and other animals on the range will starve to death. Overall, Perryman said the BLM spends about 60 percent of its annual budget on the wild horses and burros, and the program may cost taxpayers more than $1 billion during the next two decades.
In central Nevada, for example, Perryman said the land is encountering horse damage. He feels if all the lands and HMAs were managed better, then wild horses could cohabitate with cattle, sheep and the sage grouse. It's not only a Nevada problem, he said, but a situation that's affecting all the entire Intermountain region. Perryman, though, said if horses and burros can't be managed, they will destroy sage-grouse habitat.
"The other animals can't speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them," he said.
Perryman said he also has concern with the number of horses roaming the Virginia Range. Several month ago, the NDA removed the management of the wild-horse population from a horse advocacy group to a private entity.
"The horse advocacy groups have a concern the horses will go to slaughter," Perryman said.
The NDA terminated its cooperative agreement with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign in preference to a new coordinating partner that has the tools and resources to manage feral livestock.
"Our No. 1 priority is to protect public safety, and that requires collaboration between state, local and nonprofit partners," NDA Director Jim Barbee said in October. "In addition to working with a coordinating partner, the NDA can assist local law enforcement with removal of feral horses upon request."
Both the Nevada Highway Patrol and Lyon County Sheriff's Office have responded to numerous encounters of motorists hitting horses on the highway. The Nevada Highway Patrol said a driver hit and killed a wild horse Friday morning about 4:22 a.m. The NHP said the driver of a Chevy Tahoe hit the horse on U.S Highway 50 and Bryce Street in Dayton. According to the NHP, no one in the SUV was seriously hurt, and the driver wasn't impaired. The horse was dead by the time troopers arrived.
With horses grazing near or crossing the highway, the BLM Carson City District said the NDA is responsible.
"We have a public safety crisis on Highway 50 from Silver Springs through Mound House," Sheriff Al McNeill said on the LCSO Facebook page that showed video of a deputy hitting horses on the highway several weeks ago. "Before going further, this fact needs to be stated. There are many dedicated state employees who are raising the same concerns, but it is falling flat on deaf bureaucratic state leaders' ears. When is it enough? Is it going to take a school bus accident before they take their heads out of the sand to deal with this problem?"
The video was also released to media outlets in Northern Nevada.
A Lyon County deputy recently slammed into three horses standing on the highway at night. McNeill said the deputy's dash cam indicated he didn't have enough time to react and avoid hitting the horses. McNeill said the deputy escaped injury, but the impact killed two horses and the third had to be euthanized. The sheriff blamed state negligence for the problem along the major east-west highway through central Nevada.
While the deputy escaped serious injury, at least two others didn't. In October, a former Fallon resident hit a horse on the highway near the Stagecoach firehouse. The impact caused the driver's SUV to overturn, throwing him from the vehicle. The NHP said the driver later died after being flown to Reno via Care Flight.
In 2014, a motorcyclist died when he hit a horse on the highway west of Silver Springs. The NHP press release stated at the time the driver was westbound when he struck a wild horse near Rocky Road. The NHP said the crash ejected the driver from his motorcycle into an unlit eastbound lane where three vehicles driving eastbound hit him.
"The state either needs to spend money on quality fencing, highway safety lights to increase visibility, and build highway horse crossings, or it needs to start rounding up and removing nuisance horses, even if that means taking them to the sale barn or euthanizing them," McNeill wrote.
Barbee responded Monday to McNeill's criticism.
"We share the concerns Lyon County Sheriff's Office has about public safety and management of the Virginia Range feral/estray horses," Barbee said. "We continue to work with the Nevada Department of Transportation, who has authority over fencing and right-of-way."