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As Nevada's wild horse population grows, debate over management continues

The BLM's John Neill and Jenny Leseiutre lean against the railing of a trailer as they provide details about the agency's wild horse holding facility in Winnemucca on May 16, 2024.

It’s a crystal-clear spring day in Paradise Valley, about half an hour north of Winnemucca, as the Bureau of Land Management’s John Neill prepares to lead a tour through the state’s newest wild horse holding facility.

Neill is the acting facility operations manager for the BLM’s Nevada Wild Horse and Burro Program. He’s technically in charge of caring for the wild horses rounded up on public lands throughout the state.

Current estimates suggest more than 70,000 wild horses and burros roam the American West, about half of them in Nevada. That’s more than three times the number land managers say can safely co-exist with other animals on the open range.

In recent years, the federal Bureau of Land Management has stepped up efforts to move most of those animals off public land.

This facility is about two years old and can hold more than 4,000 horses. It’s also one of two in Nevada operated by a contractor on private land.

Standing against the railing of a trailer slowly pulled up and down rows or pens, Neill explains to the dozen or so ranchers and wild horse advocates on the tour that the animals brought here are treated for health conditions, vaccinated and branded.

According to him, at least three thousand horses are corralled here. Most of them are from a roundup of the East Pershing Management Area west of Winnemucca earlier this year. However, a few hundred remain from previous roundups.

And since it’s foaling season, BLM officials don’t have an exact number.

“There's well over 200 that have been born here so far this year, and more to come,” he said.

Many foals seen during a tour of the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse Facility in Winnemucca on May 16, 2024, were born in captivity.
Paul Boger
Many foals seen during a tour of the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse Facility in Winnemucca on May 16, 2024, were born in captivity.

Horses are separated into pens according to their sex and age. Neill explains the horses have access to feed and running water, and that BLM has a vet on staff.

What’s noticeable is the lack of shade or sprinklers. While the corrals appear relatively clean, they seem crowded—maybe 50 to 60 horses in each pen. They can hold up to 100. One pen contains nothing but orphaned foals.

“You are here on a sanitized day,” said Laura Leigh, the founder of Nevada-based Wild Horse Education, who was also on the tour.

To her, the conditions were abysmal.

“This is probably the best this facility looks at any time,” she said. “So, no shade, no dust control. This is built on a floodplain. So, if we were here two weeks ago, you would have seen a whole different set of problems.”

Wild horse advocates and ranchers overlook a pen filled with wild horses while on a tour of the wild BLM's wild horse facility in Winnemucca on May 16, 2024.
Paul Boger
Wild horse advocates and ranchers overlook a pen filled with wild horses while on a tour of the wild BLM's wild horse facility in Winnemucca on May 16, 2024.

The horses here are destined for a BLM pasture facility or adoption – it’s that last one that has other wild horse advocates concerned.

In 2019, BLM began offering cash incentives to increase adoption rates. One year after each adoption, adopters receive one thousand dollars for up to four animals. The agency says the program aims to reduce the amount of money it spends caring for wild horses and address overpopulation concerns.

In the first year, adoptions nearly doubled.

“Best horse I've got when I'm pulling cows off the range is a wild horse,” said Jenny Leseiutre, a public affairs specialist for the BLM Nevada Wild Horse Program.

She says many people like her love working with wild horses.

“We've got agencies that are utilizing them in their work because compared to a domestic horse, they're built much differently,” said Leseiutre.

On the other hand, advocates say the process has become a pipeline to the slaughterhouse.

American Wild Horse Conservation conducted an investigation that claims to have found 1000s of horses, adopted through BLM, later found in kill pens in Mexico and Canada.

“What people are doing is they're adopting the maximum out of horses and burros that they can per year, said Amelia Perrin, a spokesperson for the organization.

“They're holding them for one year in lands that you don't really have to take care of them. You don't really have to feed them, you can just turn them out into pasture and let them live, and then they're sending them into slaughter auctions.”

Last year, her organization conducted an investigation that she says found thousands of horses – adopted through the BLM – were later found in kill pens in Mexico and Canada.

Federal law currently prohibits the sale of wild horses for commercial use. BLM also requires people who want to adopt a horse to sign paperwork saying they won’t resell the horse for commercial use.

“What really needs to happen is they need to stop putting so many horses into these holding facilities,” said Perrin. “They need to start managing wild horses in the wild, stopping the influx, and then incentivizing responsible adoptions on the other ends.”

At the same time, a free-market environmental group called the Property and Environment Research Center recently released a report hailing the BLM’s adoption program as a success. It cites BLM statistics showing a ten thousand animal decrease in the wild horse population country-wide from 2023 to March this year.

A bill currently before Congress would cut the time it takes to receive the full title of an adopted horse from one year to six months. It would also increase cash incentives from one thousand dollars a year to three thousand and create a “frequent adopter” program. Lastly, the bill would make it a felony to sell wild horses for slaughter.

Advocates currently have reservations regarding the measure, but for the BLM’s Jenny Lesieutre, the legislation is a sign that more people are paying attention to wild horses. She’s hopeful that means more of the animals get adopted.

“Every animal, I don't care if it's brown or if it's the beautiful paint horse on the internet, they all deserve a good home,” she said.

The next round of BLM wild horse adoptions in Nevada is June 15.
Copyright 2024 Nevada Public Radio