They kill wild horses, don’t they?

On Tuesday, wild horse advocates gathered in front of the Legislative Building in Carson City hoping to convince the Nevada Department of Agriculture not to send Virginia Range wild horses to slaughter.

It has always been a surreal part of Reno life that a herd of wild horses lives just a few miles away from where shoppers are browsing Banana Republic at the Summit mall. More than half of all free-roaming mustangs in North America can be found in Nevada, and many advocacy groups would like to keep them here despite running into obstacles with some government legislation.

Previously, these horses were protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The Act made it a crime to harass or kill feral horses or burros on federal land, set aside public land for the horses’ use and required ongoing studies of the animals’ habits, in addition to offering other protections.

Since then, local wild horse advocacy groups have worked with the Nevada Department of Agriculture to keep the wild horse population down in numbers. They helped round up and adopt out younger horses, and were in the process of studying a birth control program for the horses in the Virginia Range that straddles Storey and Washoe counties.

Bonnie Matton is the president of the Wild Horse Preservation League in Northern Nevada. She has been working with the NDA and the Bureau of Land Management to control and support Nevada’s wild horses for many years. She said that trouble for wild horse advocates began in 2004, when Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana amended the 1971 Act to allow BLM to sell excess, “unadoptable” wild horses for slaughter. Although the last of horse slaughterhouses in the United States were closed in 2007, BLM still allows the horses to be exported and slaughtered in other countries, such as Canada and Mexico.

Matton said that she and other wild horse advocates have had a difficult time working with the NDA to manage the wild horse populations and, therefore, end up with more horses than can be controlled. This leaves the state with excess horsesthat will eventually be sold for slaughter.

“The population of horses in the Virginia Range area has gotten very large, and they’re starting to come down this way toward the highway,” Matton said. “That’s why so many of the horses have been killed. Luckily, there have been no people killed, but we wouldn’t be in this situation if the Department of Agriculture would work again with us so we could keep those numbers down and stop these deaths from happening. So, that’s where we are. They will not work with us.”

Nevada is a state that seems to take pride in its wild horse populations. The iconic mustangs are deeply entrenched in our local history—three of them even appear alongside the sagebrush and declaration of “The Silver State” on our state quarter. It should therefore be more important to Nevadans to protect what Congress called “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” in its 1971 protective Act.

“We’ve had so many battles,” Matton said. “What we’re trying to do is get the Nevada Department of Agriculture to again work with organizations to be able to place them safely and keep the numbers smaller so they will not come down off the highway. It’s as simple as that.”