Federal wranglers plan an unusual wild horse roundup near the Nevada-Utah line, where ranchers and rural residents say protected mustangs are knocking down fences and impregnating domesticated mares.
The Bureau of Land Management intends to conduct what it describes as a public safety and nuisance gather of about 120 wild horses beginning next month in eastern Nevada.
The agency typically conducts roundups to reduce herds it says are on overgrazed public lands and in danger of starvation.
In the upcoming roundup, agency officials say they must haul away roaming bands of mustangs wreaking havoc on private property in Butte Valley, and get horses off U.S. Highway 93, where they pose a danger to motorists 120 miles south of Ely.
"Wild stallions have torn down, jumped over or ran through fences on private land owners' facilities which have resulted in injured domestic horses and domestic mares being bred by wild horses," the BLM said in an environmental assessment.
The mustangs also have destroyed sprinkler systems, gardens, lawns, trees and haystacks, the agency said.
The agency says the estimated 1,800 wild horse for the 5,780 square miles at issue is six times the maximum number bureau scientists estimate can be sustained by the public rangeland shared with cattle, sheep and other wildlife.
The BLM makes it clear it's not a typical roundup in the environmental review published in August that envisions cowboys on horseback roping mustangs the old-fashioned way, when necessary, while also using the helicopters, pickup trucks and bait traps, as usual.
Critics say the latest round of gathers at taxpayer expense amounts to welfare for ranchers whose real aim is to rid the range of competition for scarce forage.
Anne Novak, executive director of the California-based horse advocacy group Protect Mustangs, acknowledged the nuisance roundups are legal under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. But she said the ranchers are "grabbing at straws to remove native wild horses."
"If people are going to live outside the city and don't want wild horses and other wild animals eating their grass, then they need to pay for fencing with their own money, not expect another government handout," Novak said.
Nevada's Department of Agriculture has captured horses in recent years that pose hazards on U.S. Highway 50 in western Nevada between Carson City and Dayton, and on a state highway near Virginia City. But those animals are considered feral horses that for the most part have been abandoned and left to roam state-owned property where they enjoy no protection under the 1971 federal law.
BLM officials say overpopulation on the range has prompted some horses to wander 40 miles onto private land.
"We are over the appropriate management level and lots of little stud groups are looking for mares to breed," BLM wild horse specialist Ben Noyes said. "There's no fence that is going to keep them out."