Nevada woman sues, fears missing horse could be slaughtered

Lance Gilman, head of the largest industrial park in the world just east of Sparks, speaks at a news conference with leaders of the American Wild Horse Campaign in Reno, Nev., March 12, 2018. Gilman urged Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to reverse a state plan to transfer ownership of nearly 3,000 free-roaming horses to private owners who critics say likely will slaughter them. About two-thirds of the animals graze on land at Gilman's Tahoe Reno Industrial Center.

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A Nevada woman who fears her missing horse could end up at the slaughterhouse has joined a lawsuit challenging state plans to transfer ownership of thousands of free-roaming mustangs to private hands.

Lawyers for the California-based American Wild Horse Campaign and Cynthia Ashe of Silver Springs filed the lawsuit Monday in state court in Carson City seeking an injunction to block what they say would be “a giveaway of a valuable and cherished Nevada asset.”

The lawsuit accuses Nevada’s Department of Agriculture of breaching a contract that called for the wild horse group to manage the nearly 3,000 mustangs in the Virginia Range east and south of Reno through 2020 in a humane manner under a joint agreement emphasizing fertility control.

That agreement, initiated in 2013 and updated in 2015, was administered under state law that dictates state ownership of stray or feral horses not entitled to U.S. protections on neighboring federal land.

“There’s nothing in state law that allows them to just give away these public resources,” said Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign who called it a “flagrantly illegal scheme.”

Roy announced plans to file the lawsuit with Lance Gilman, a Storey County commissioner and wealthy businessman who manages the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center along Interstate 80 about 10 miles east of Sparks.

The 167-square-mile industrial park serves as home to Tesla Motor Co.’s giant battery factory, Switch and Google. It’s also home to about 2,000 of the horses.

Gilman appealed to Gov. Brian Sandoval to block the ownership transfers and appoint a mediator to help settle the dispute. There has been no indication the governor intends to intercede.

“Since Mr. Gilman is now threatening litigation, there will be no further comment from the governor’s office,” Sandoval spokeswoman Mari St. Martin said in an email to The Associated Press last week.

The Nevada Department of Agriculture published a request for proposals last month for people willing to take ownership of the Virginia Range herd. It intends to start transferring ownership of the animals as early as May.

The new twist is the addition of Ashe’s concerns about her private property rights. She raises domestic horses in Lyon County about 40 miles northeast of Carson City.

One of her mares got loose from a fenced enclosure and “took off with a band of wild horses” in the Virginia Range in 2016, Roy said.

“Now she’s at large,” Roy said. “She could be sold for slaughter.”

The lawsuit says the department is required to safeguard the rights of owners whose horses escape. Among other things, a state branding inspector must confirm no one has a claim to any horse offered for sale or transfer, the suit said.

Such transfers are prohibited unless each animal is “individually inspected and advertised because of the recovery rights of legal owners or possible owners” including Ashe, the lawsuit said.

Nevada Agriculture Director Jim Barbee said his agency receives no state appropriation to manage the horses and cannot afford to do the job, which includes insuring public safety on state highways and roads where wandering animals sometimes are hit by passing vehicles.

He said the new plan is intended to replace state ownership of the herd “with a reputable animal advocate organization that has the experience, knowledge, tools, resources and financial ability to manage horses according to their needs.”

Barbee said his department intends to continue to consult with Nevada’s attorney general to ensure any transfer complies with state law.

But Roy says no private entity can obtain liability insurance necessary to cover so many animals over such a large area of open range.

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