Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association
P.O. Box 536
Virginia City, NV 89440
(775) 881-2288

Virginia Range Estray Horse Program

  This information from the Nevada State Department of Agriculture

1. What is the difference between a wild and estray horse?

 In 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which provided federal protection and management for free-roaming horses and burros (and their descendants) that inhabited the western public ranges.  As such, the large majority of “wild” and free-roaming horses and burros in the Nevada fall under the jurisdiction of this federal law.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is charged with managing these wild horse and burro populations and has a separate program to complete this task.

Since much of the Virginia Range is privately owned, with very little federal land, the BLM determined that this area was not suitable for long-term management of wild horses or burros and instigated a horse capture program.  In 1986, the BLM designated the Virginia Range as a wild horse free area through a land use planning process.

Horses that were either left behind or migrated into the Virginia Range after this BLM designation fell by default under the existing state laws pertaining to “estray” livestock (see NRS 569).  Under these State statutes, estray livestock are deemed the property of the Nevada Department of Agriculture until such time as the legal owner can be determined and take possession, or the animal is other wised placed.  Specific procedures on how the Department shall process, or other wise place, estray livestock are specifically referenced in existing State statutes.

2. What will happen to the horses once they are removed from the Virginia Range?

 Captured horses from the Virginia Range are placed under the custody of the Nevada Department of Agriculture and transported to the Department’s holding facility located at the Northern Nevada Correctional Facility in Carson City.  Once at this facility, captured horses will be publicly advertised in accordance with State law to determine previous ownership.  If no previous ownership is identified, horses are examined by a qualified veterinarian and given the required immunizations and worming treatments.  Upon conclusion of veterinary treatment each capture horse is provided with a State of Nevada brand for individual identification.

After processing and branding, the Nevada Department of Agriculture will keep the captured horses at the Carson City holding facility up to 60-days to allow sufficient opportunity for adoption and placement.  Estray horses that are not placed at the conclusion of the 60-day holding period will be offered for public sale at the holding facility.  Minimum sale price will be determined by the costs incurred by the State at that time.  Horses that are not placed through adoption within the 60-day holding period, or are not sold at the subsequent public sale, will be transported and sold to the highest bidder at a livestock auction.

3.  Why not take these estray horses to Palomino Valley and let the BLM adopt them out?

 As referenced above, free-roaming horses inhabiting the Virginia Range are estray horses falling under State laws rather than wild horses falling under federal jurisdiction.  Both entities, the BLM and Nevada Department of Agriculture, have developed similar programs to manage the respective free-roaming horse populations.  A key priority in each program is the adoption and placement of horses that exceed the capacities of their habitats into suitable and caring homes.  Both programs share a further characteristic in that the currently developed capacity to adopt and properly place excess horses fall below the identified program needs.

When and if these two separate programs catch up with the respective horse adoption needs, there may be a future opportunity to combine the two programs.  Current BLM costs to process, care and place a captured wild horse approach $1,500 per horse.  Based on the number of Virginia Range horses that need to be adopted and placed, this level of expense exceeds the State’s financial capabilities.

4.  Will any of these estray horses go to slaughter?

It is important to note that approximately 200 horses have been captured and removed from the Virginia Range since this horse management program was initiated in the fall of 1997.  All of these horses have been placed to good homes through adoption program and not one has had to be put up for public sale or auction.  This success story best represents the commitment by the Department and the cooperating organizations to adopt and place all horses removed from the Virginia Range.

Furthermore, there are no commercial slaughterhouses in Nevada, nor does the Department of Agriculture have the intention of transporting Virginia Range horses out of the State for direct sale to a livestock slaughter facility.

However, the Department and cooperating adoption agents lose all control of the final disposition of a Virginia Range horse once the 60-day holding period is completed and the animal is placed through public sale or auction.  With horses being sold to willing bidders at either a sale or auction, it is possible for a livestock broker to purchase an unadopted horse or horses and, in-turn, sell the same animal to an out of state slaughter operation.  Because of this possibility, both the State and the cooperating organizations are working very hard to expand the capabilities of the Virginia Range horse adoption program and permanently place each captured horse into a caring and healthy environment.

However, the proposed acceleration of horse removals from the Virginia Range causes some concern whether the rate of horse adoptions can keep up with the required rate of horse capture over the long term.  For this reason, the Department and cooperating adoption agents are actively soliciting qualified horse adopters and additional horse adoption agents.

5.  Who are the adoption agents and what is their relationship to the State?

 The Nevada Department of Agriculture does not adopt captured estray horses to private parties or residents.  Rather, the State has individual cooperative agreements with several non-profit organizations (such as VRWPA) that voluntarily serve as adoption agents for the purpose of placing and adopting captured estray horses from the Virginia Range.  The fundamental and primary interest of these participating organizations is the welfare and permanent placement of these horses into caring and secure homes.

Under this arrangement, the authorized adoption agent purchases a captured estray horse from the Department of Agriculture prior to completion of the 60-day holding period.  The fees for this transaction represent the costs that the State has incurred at that time in the capture, processing and care of the horse.  During this transaction, title for the horse is transferred from the State to the adoption agent with the requirement that the agent will hold this title for one year after permanent placement.  The adoption agent must further provide the department with quarterly reports disclosing the location and status of placed horses during the one-year waiting period.  After its purchase from the State, the authorized adoption agent can charge whatever price it desires to place the estray horse into a suitable home.

 For purposes of insuring that horses are placed into caring and secure homes, title for adopted estray horses will be transferred only after one complete calendar year of permanent placement.  During this interval, the health and care of the placed horses, and the suitability of the animal’s quarters, will be open for inspection by either the adoption agent and/or the Department of Agriculture.  Estray horses found to be receiving inadequate or unsafe care during this period will be retrieved and re-placed through the adoption program.

At the conclusion of the one-year waiting period, the authorized adoption agent will relay its authorization to the Department of Agriculture to transfer the title for the successfully placed horse to the final adopter.  Per State law, a State Brand Inspector employed by the Nevada Department of Agriculture will perform all horse title transfers.

6. Who determines which horses will be removed from the Virginia Range?

Working in close coordination with Storey County, the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association, and the involved landowner, it is the Department of Agriculture who takes the lead in the capture of estray horses from the Virginia Range. Estray horses are captured by trapping to feed.  Under this approach, feed is placed in a portable panel corral and the gate is closed when horses enter the corral by the cooperating landowner.  This approach is non-intrusive and easy on the captured horses.

The first priority for capture are those horses that regularly inhabit developed residential or commercial areas, or roadways, where they pose a threat to themselves or a safety hazard for area residents or motorists.  A second priority for horse capture and removal are those areas where horse are severely impacting or overgrazing their habitat.  In both instances, the Department will work cooperatively with the affected landowner to safely capture the estray horses.  Captured horses that show desirable characteristics, like color or conformation, may be retained and relocated with the Virginia Range for purposes of maintaining and improving animal genetics and health within the remaining herd.  The decision to retain certain captured estray horses will be made by the Department of Agriculture in consultation with the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association and Storey County.

7.  How long will estray horses be held for adoption before they are taken to sale?

As noted under Question 2, estray horses from the Virginia Range are held for a 60-day period, after processing and branding, for the purpose of allowing permanent placement through adoption.  Please refer to the responses to Questions 2 and 8 for further information relating to this topic.

8.  Why are estray horses held adoption by the State for only 60-days before being offered for public sale?

In addition to keeping program costs within reasonable levels, the primary reason for limiting the duration for holding unadopted horses relates to price competition.  Initial outlay costs to purchase a wild horse from the BLM is $125 regardless of how long the animal was held and cared for by the federal government.  Actual costs to the State for processing a captured estray horse (i.e., public notice, veterinarian checkup, shots, worming and branding) approaches approximately $100 per horse.  Costs for holding and feeding an estray horse are $2 per day.  Based on these rates, the Department can process an estray horse and hold it for adoption for 12 days before exceeding the price for a wild horse purchased through the BLM program.  Costs to the State for processing and holding an estray horse for the 60-day adoption period approaches $220, or nearly a $100 more than a similar horse could be purchased from the BLM.

While it is not the intent of this program to make money, it is an expectation that the State can recover much of its operational costs through a reasonable adoption fee.  Extending the holding period for adoption beyond the current 60-day limit would substantially reduce the salability of Virginia Range horses and substantially increase the unrecoverable program costs to the State.

9.  How much will it cost the Nevada taxpayer to remove these estray horses?

Taxpayer funding that has been applied to this program to date has been minimal and limited primarily to the costs involved with the capture, processing and holding of estray horses during the 60-day adoption period.  Furthermore, the horse adoption fees are designed to recapture the State’s costs for these activities.  The involved horse adoption agents primarily incur the costs associated with horse adoption and subsequent monitoring.

Withstanding these minimal taxpayer costs, the Nevada Legislature appropriated $10,000 for the program in 1997.  An additional $50,000 was appropriated to the program for the 1999-2001 biennium budget period.  In addition, Washoe County has contributed over $30,000 to the program for the construction of the Department’s estray horse holding facility located in Carson City.  Financial and in-kind donations from other private organizations have also greatly assisted this program.

10.  Why did it take so long to figure out there were too many horses in the Virginia Range?

 As an agent for Storey County, the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association (VRWPA) has been involved with providing veterinary care to injured horses in Storey County and placing horses requiring a home since the early 1980’s. The Department of Agriculture has been actively involved in the management of the Virginia Range estray horse herd since the fall of 1997.  While there has been a suspicion over the past several years that horse numbers were approaching or possibly exceeding the available habitat, no resource information had been developed to determine what level these horses should be managed to in the future.  Recognizing this point, the Department and the VRWPA jointly funded the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service to complete a comprehensive habitat capacity analysis.

This NRCS analysis was initiated in November 1999.  With this information now in-hand, these cooperators now have the detailed resource information to begin developing a comprehensive management plan to ensure a viable and sustainable horse population in the Virginia Range.

11.   Why can’t you just feed these estray horses during the winter or under drought conditions?

In response to this question it is important to realize that free-roaming horses have an annual recruitment rate approaching 18 to 25 percent and their population growth is largely unaffected by natural predation.  As such, horse populations can and will double every 3 to 4 years unless actions are taken to control or manage this population growth.  Therefore, even if State and private funding was available to adequately feed an ever-expanding horse population, some level of population control or management would still be required for purposes of preventing overgrazing by horses and maintaining the habitat and watershed conditions within the Virginia Range.

12. Are you just trying to make more room for cattle grazing?

  The NRCS habitat capacity analysis represents an estimate of total available forage for horses, cattle, or any combination of both, within the 85,000 acre study site.  As such, increased cattle grazing within the 85,000 acre study site would have corresponding effect on the remaining habitat that would be available for estray horses.  This relationship would not represent a one to one trade-off (i.e., one lost horse per cow), but rather would be highly dependent upon the distribution of developed stockwater.

Currently there is little to no commercial livestock grazing occurring in the Virginia Range, and no livestock grazing occurring within the 85,000 acre area represented by this study.  However, with so much of the Virginia being privately-held, it is possible that livestock grazing could be reintroduced in the Virginia Range in the future.  Withstanding this potential, we are unaware of any proposals to commercially graze livestock within the 85,000 acre study site involved with this habitat capacity analysis.

Recognizing that situations change over time, and either residential growth or future livestock grazing could reduce future habitat capacities within the Virginia Range, there is an interest among some individuals and organizations to secure funding and property to establish a permanent horse sanctuary in the region.  The concept of establishing an estray horse sanctuary in the Virginia Range is a new idea that is just getting underway.

13. Is the State and/or cattlemen putting pressure on you to remove these horses?

 No.  To date the Department of Agriculture has not been contacted by any representative of the Nevada ranching industry to remove or eliminate estray horses from the Virginia Range. There have been some rumors and a contact indicating that cattle grazing may be reinitiated on the old 102 Ranch, which occupies most of the eastern portion of the Virginia Range.  However, this contact was preliminary and, to our knowledge, has not preceded any further at this time.  Irregardless of any future livestock grazing on the 102 Ranch, boundaries for this historic ranch fall to the east of the 85,000 acre area involved with this horse habitat capacity analysis.  In other words, reinitiating livestock grazing on the 102 Ranch would not affect the horse habitat capacity estimated for the 85,000 study area.

However, there are estray horses currently located within the 102 Ranch.  If these horses were rounded up by the current landowner, the Department of Agriculture would be obliged, under State law, to take possession of these horse and treat them like any other estray livestock.  If this were to happen, the Department would place these estray horses in the Virginia Range Estray Horse Program and hold them for the 60-day adoption period.

It should be noted here that the herding and capture of horses through mechanical means is unlawful in Storey County.  Likewise, it is unlawful for any person to take possession of an estray horse without previous notification and authorization by the Department of Agriculture.

14. Where did the numbers come from?

 There are two sets of numbers involved in the management of the Virginia Range estray horse herd.  The first number involves an aerial census of horse locations and numbers conducted cooperatively by the Nevada Department of Agriculture and the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association each summer.Arrangements for this year’s inventory are currently underway. June 1999, indicated a horse population level of over 1,000 head across the entire Virginia Range area.  Estimated number of horses located within the 85,000 acre study site during this last census was estimated to approach approximately 700 to 800 head.

The second important number relates to the estimated number of horses that can be sustained on a year round basis within the available habitat.  Methods and procedures use to determine this estimate are detailed elsewhere in this packet.  Suffice it to say here that based on the detailed resource information contained in the habitat analysis conducted by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation, a target population of 550 head has been selected at this point for the 85,000 acre study area.  To achieve this target population, a goal of capturing and placing up to 225 horses per year for three consecutive years has been adopted by the Department and the other involved parties.

It is important to note here that this estimated capacity for horses is just that, an estimate based on detail resource information collected from the site.  The true capacity for horses within the 85,000 acre study site will not be known until the target population level is approached and the resulting grazing effects can be monitored over time.  At that point, horse numbers can be fine-tuned and adjusted to better reflect the true capacities of the habitat.  Please refer to the NRCS summary report contained in this packet for further information on this habitat capacity analysis.

15.    When will the gathering of estray horses begin, and how will it occur?

 As previously indicated, the capture and adoption of estray horses from the Virginia Range has been an on-going process since the fall of 1997.  Estray horses captured and placed to date under this program approach approximately 200 head.  All of these horses represent animals that inhabited developed areas such as residential areas, parks, or along roadways where they posed a safety risk to themselves and area residents or motorists.

However, with the better understanding of habitat capacities brought by the NRCS study, plans have now been made to accelerate the horse capture and adoption program for the purpose of removing and placing up 225 horses per year for three consecutive years.  This accelerated process will begin this summer.  However, voluntary assistance is needed from landowners and other non-profit horse adoption organizations to expand the adoption capabilities and reduce the need to place horses through sale or auction.

In terms of capture methods, all horses will be captured by trapping to feed or, in some cases, possibly trapping to water.  Under this approach, feed is placed in a temporary panel corral and the gate is closed when horses enter the corral by the cooperating landowner.  This approach is non-intrusive and easy on the captured horses.

16. Will you have humane society officials monitor the capture of estray horses?  If not, why not?

 As previously mentioned, trapping horse to feed or water is a non-intrusive horse capture method that is not particularly controversial.  Additionally, captured horses are immediately placed under the care of the State Veterinarian who works for the Nevada Department of Agriculture.  Furthermore, most of the non-profit organizations that cooperate in this program, as adoption agents, are horse or animal care organizations.  Through their voluntary participation in this program, these organizations provide the programmatic oversight to ensure horses are treated humanely.  Presumably due to these existing program conditions and safeguards, there has not been a request from a recognized animal humane authority to monitor the capture of estray horses in the Virginia Range.

17.  Are there other viable methods or approaches to control expanding horse populations short of capture and adoption or sale?

With the cooperative agreement, signed in 2015, we agreed to implement humane fertility control measures to reduce the population. Thanks to American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign we sent four people to The Science and Conservation Center in Billings MT to take the Wild Horse Immunocontraception Certification Training under Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick.  In September 2015 we started darting mares in the Virginia Range with the PZP vaccine for birth control.  By January 2016 we have darted over 150 mares and continue to implement humane fertility control measures.

For more information on PZP, visit The Science and Conservation Center

18.  What is being done to create a sanctuary for these horses?

Please refer to Question 12 above for a response to this question.

Call Us (775) 881-2288

P.O. Box 536
Virginia City, NV 89440