Then Say State Commission Should Get Real
Legislators Ponder Wild Horse Issue

By Tim Findley
The Courier (Hatch, N.M.)

Thanks mostly to federal domination of its lands, Nevada is home to most of America's wild horses. Herds totaling as many as 45,000 horses roam around the state, protected by federal law as "living legends" of the Old West.
The "legends" eat a lot of rangeland grass, foul up some fragile streams and sometimes cause traffic accidents, but they are also the romantic icons that Wild Horse Annie and her school-kid letter-writing minions have saved from destruction since the 1970s.
"If approved," the Reno Gazette-Journal declared in an advance story on the State Legislative Committee on Public Lands meeting, "the law changes could result in some wild horse being ground up into dog food."
Actually, the proposed changes in state policy offered by Eureka County say nothing at all about dog food, or for that matter, the market for French delicacies served by Eastern slaughter-houses.
What it says is that the state Commission on the Preservation of Wild Horses ought to pay more attention to managing the herds for the good of the environment as well as the long-term good of the horses themselves. Despite the Reno paper's alarm, Alpo had no part in the story.
Coincidentally, the very day before the committee meeting, a man walking his dog in the Reno suburb of Hidden Valley found three dead horses, at least



one of them gut shot, and the other two already mangled, probably by coyotes.
"Abhorrent, disgusting, tragic," said the tearful matrons from Wild Horse Organized Assistance (WHOA).
"Regrettable, but inevitable," said the advocates for changing state law.
Technically, the dead horses weren't even wild. Since they were found on private, undeveloped land off federal property, they were legally just "astray," a fuzzy definition basically meant to mean that the BLM would take no responsibility for them, dead or alive, but that the state commission would do nothing either.
The problem, however, is that the dead horses are part of a herd that makes its home among the cul de sacs and new-grown lawns of Hidden Valley. With a sort of lazy welfare attitude, the animals take advantage of their protected status.
Whether or not some frustrated local plugged them from a window of his split level is not really the issue. The horse herd, so secure in its easy grazing that TV reporters used it for neighborhood background shots, holds such a sheltered place in state law that nobody -- not


 
the feds, the state, the county, or a private contractor -- even agrees to be responsible.
"Awful," said Cathy Barcomb, director of Nevada's Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses, about the deaths.
She's an obviously intelligent, well-spoken and downright attractive young woman who admits to not having had a lot of smarts about free-roaming horses when she first got involved with the commission. Still, she has risen to become the state czar (if that's the right word) over wild horses since 1989, when the commission was created to protect state interests.
Many ranchers and county authorities think Barcomb had muddied up her responsibility by becoming too close to WHOA. And indeed, even at the committee meeting on clarifying her commission's role, Barcomb waited to testify in a seat next to WHOA chairwoman Dawn Lappin. Lappin seemed to offer gentle consolation to Barcomb.
If dog food is out of the question, and federal law prohibits even running them off, what do you do with a wild horse feeding on your daisies?
"Adoption," Barcomb told the committee. "I've seen 500 people show up for horses. They have lotteries among themselves to adopt them, and still some




people go away without a horse."
But she has to acknowledge that, even if there are all those disappointed horse-parents she says are out there, they can't just drive up to Hidden Valley and rope one. That would violate federal law.
Despite ranchers' claims to the contrary, and clear allignment of her commission's positions with those of WHOA, Barcomb insisted that she has not hindered round-ups of over-populated herds on out-of-balance federal grazing lands.
"You need to target the offending animal," she entreated. "If you remove the wrong animal, you're not doing any good."
Unfortunately, due in part to Barcomb's own protests of federal horse gathers, it's been mostly privately owned cattle lately removed from permit lands.
John Tyson nodded his head with that understanding way he does in his Channel 8 TV news reports. Tyson, hardly more than 50, has a full head of sheet-white hair and bushy white mustache to match. It must be a strange stroke of karma that makes him resemble Mark Twain. That, and his past as railroad engineer, county lawman, cowboy and, currently, brand inspector.
Tyson, a popular personality in northern Nevada, makes his home in the touristy old mining town of Virginia City,


 
where he also serves as the official range manager. Virginia City, and the relatively small Storey County around it, are an exceptional examples in Nevada of mostly privately owned land. Sam Clemens himself worked on the paper there in an era before Virginia City needed tourists to survive, and long before the town would have any doubts about what to do with wild horse clopping into town as they do now.
"I'd like to tell you, you never had a problem until you've had to take a horse into auction at Fallon," Tyson told the committee.
The Fallon Livestock Auction is where a handful of wild horses over recent years have wound up on their way to chicken (not dog) food.
No doubt Tyson would rather not emphasize his contribution to making horses into chicken feed. But wild horses finding their way into Virginia City, he told the committee, poses a unique problem. For the most part, when Tyson is called to round them up -- actually they're caught in feed traps -- the town tries the same method as the BLM: to adopt them out.
But the $7-a-day feed costs, plus other expenses, usually aren't covered in the time it takes to find an "adopter" willing to put up all the written promises, along with a maximum $125 fee. (Usually the fee is waived, just to get rid of the horses).




The federal government, and Barcomb's commission, go along with this unusual arrangement in Virginia City because, frankly, they, too, don't have the money to subsidize all of Nevada's vagrant "living legends" that might get in the way of a cash crop in souvenirs. In Virginia City, a loose horse either better have a brand or it takes its own risks -- apart from state sympathy.
Though the Reno paper tried to make the meeting seem to be about three dead horses and dog meat, it became clear it is a matter of reasonable and responsible management.
As a cold winter rain plopped against the high windows of the old state building late that day, the legislative committee wrapped up its work with a proposal to the full Assembly and Senate that the State Commission for Preservation of Wild Horses concentrate more of its agenda on removal and disposal of wild horses, "in a manner which balances herd vitality and ecological condition of the range resource."
Cathy Barcomb said she was "extremely concerned" about what that meant.
In Hidden Valley, they were still trying to figure out what to do with the three dead horses.


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