This is Part Two in a series on the Virginia Range horses and the Nevada Department of Agriculture. To understand the context of this report, please start at Part One.
HISTORY OF THE|
VIRGINIA RANGE HORSES
Virginia Range wild horses below Geiger Grade. Many of the "Old World" traits remain.
To understand why things are as they are in the Virginia Range, it helps to understand some of the history of this herd.
According to historical documents, in 1860 two men purchased 500 Spanish mustangs in San Diego and drove them to an area near Susanville, later named "Wild Horse Canyon." Local ranchers, miners and even the military needed horses that would flourish in the high desert environment. Many of these horses were interbred with pedigreed stock. In the late 1800s, 500 mustangs would have had a significant impact on the "bloodlines" in the region.
Hay was extremely expensive and it was not unusual for horses to be turned out to fend for themselves when not being used. Quite a few were never recaptured and the feral horse population grew.
In 1950 Velma Johnston noticed blood dripping out of a stock truck that was parked in Reno and discovered it overcrowded with Virginia Range horses. Later dubbed "Wild Horse Annie," Johnston embarked on a public campaign that produced two federal laws intended to protect free-roaming horses.
The BLM took responsibility for two groups of Virginia Range horses at Jumbo Grade and Horse Springs. However as the county developed it was agreed that BLM would remove its horses from its properties, which they did. Jumbo Grade was zeroed out prior to passage of the 1971 Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act. Horse Springs was zeroed out in 1983 after a public hearing. The horses that remained on the Virginia Range were deemed to be the property of the Mansfield family and not protected by federal laws.
Originally the remaining free-roaming horses were declared to be estrays. In 1959 the Nevada Legislature had deemed estrays to be the property of the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) so those remaining horses that were not claimed by landowners became the department's property. The term "Virginia Range Estray," although no longer technically correct, is still often used to describe these horses.
Link: Virginia Range Horses - Introduction and Background
In 1993 the NDA approached the state legislature and had a number of laws amended to better manage and control the Virginia Range horses. The law now provided for cooperative agreements between NDA and other entities including having qualifying non-profits carry out certain day-to-day activities involving the horses and to facilitate placement of horses that were removed from the range. One of the original primary cooperators was the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association (VRWPA) that looked after the horses found in Storey County.
With seed money from VRWPA and the Let 'Em Run Foundation, NDA entered into a cooperative agreement with Silver State Industries (Nevada's prison industries program) to develop an inmate horse-training program. The training program became nationally acclaimed. It currently trains horses that are sold to private adopters and they have a backorder of horses to train for the US Border Patrol, the military and law enforcement agencies.
Meanwhile former Director Tony Lesperance lied in testimony before the State Legislature that the inmate horse-training program was "a complete failure." He withdrew NDA's participation with Silver State Industries even though the horse groups were covering the expenses of training Virginia Range horses and the program was able to keep all the adoption fees received. As a result of NDA's actions, the inmate horse-training program no longer trains Virginia Range horses, but instead works for the Bureau of Land Management's horse program.
NDA's Virginia Range horse program wasn't perfect but former directors Paul Iverson and Don Henderson steadily made improvements. Laws were further amended in 1997 and 1999 to facilitate the program.
In 2003 a section was added designating the free-roaming Virginia Range horses as "feral livestock," distinguishing them from "estrays." ("Estrays" is a term that actually applies to someone's private livestock that have strayed from their designated grazing areas.) While advocates found the term "feral" to be distasteful, these amendments to the law provided NDA with a streamlined and less expensive process for placing excess horses so long as the department placed Virginia Range horses that they had removed through the cooperators.
The cooperative agreements placed certain responsibilities on the cooperating groups, including accounting for and monitoring horses placed with adopters and limitations as to what could be done with the horses for a period of one year after receiving horses from NDA.
The cooperators historically sent quarterly reports to NDA. Lesperance ordered the cooperators to stop submitting reports, then told the legislature that there was no accountability in the cooperator program.
Example of detailed records on horses received from NDA and their disposition.
One of Nevada's major tourism marketing firms warned that Nevada's wild horses were an inextricable part of Nevada's marketing "brand." The tourism - gaming - hospitality sector directly or indirectly employs about 40 percent of Nevadans. The experts at Brookings warned that Nevada had to get its tourism sector back on track to recover financially.
Link: Home Means Nevada for Wild Horses.
("Home Means Nevada" is the Nevada State Song.)
Governor Kenny Guynn, coming from the south state and understanding how tourists' perception of Nevada can affect the state's revenues, asked that all reasonable steps be taken to prevent any state owned horses from going to kill buyers.
When the Guynn administration ended, so did any compassion and common sense regarding the Virginia Range horses.
HORSE WARS AND THEIR|
CHILLING EFFECT ON TOURISM
In 2008 Tony Lesperance was named Director of Agriculture by the new governor, Jim Gibbons. On April 11 Director Lesperance drew media attention by falsely claiming that the Virginia Range horses were starving, that the range was devoid of forage and that he intended to remove the horses "as rapidly as we can."
The public response was swift and significant, prompting the Nevada Appeal to run the headline, "Horse Wars Begin!"
Director Lesperance subsequently escalated the "horse wars" by falsely accusing the cooperating horse groups of acquiring horses to sell to slaughterhouses and he rescinded all cooperative agreements. His actions shifted more costs to his financially strapped department. Field management of the herd all but disappeared, resulting in horses invading residential neighborhoods and roaming onto highways.
The American public reacted to the news coming out of Nevada and a large number of citizens called in to complain. When one official was quoted by the media stating that he wasn't concerned about what people outside of Nevada thought, the public reacted. According to the UNLV Center for Gaming Research, gaming revenues dropped by over 152 million dollars in the ensuing month. (Note the revenue drop in April.)
Director Lesperance tried to deal horses out the back door to kill buyer Kevin D "Ole" Olsen of Elko. Lesperance ordered brand inspector Daryl Peterson to haul horses across the state to Olsen at taxpayer expense with the assistance of Blaine Northrup, the department's chief law enforcement officer. A complaint was filed with the Attorney General. The matter was investigated however documents were reportedly "lost" by the department. Without a proper paper trail, the AG dropped the investigation however to our knowledge the illegal back door sales did stop.
When Virginia Range Herd Manager Mike Holmes complained about what was going on, he was placed on administrative leave. Accusations were fabricated and leaked that Holmes was behind illegal horse sales. Those accusations were found to be totally untrue, however during Holmes' absence some 34 Virginia Range horses were dumped in Oregon using falsified paperwork.
NDA has a history of leaking information that it is "conducting investigations" into the activities of the non-profit groups and advocates when the department is being accused of wrongdoing. This cycle is repeating itself as NDA is presently attempting to send large numbers of Virginia Range horses directly to the auction yard.