Reno horses vie with homebuilders for habitat

By Dana Gentry, Nevada Current

February 16, 2022

They are the majestic mustangs that spurred the creation of America’s Wild Horse and Burro Act.  Now, Reno’s herds are increasingly succumbing to traffic collisions as housing developments expand into wildlife territory. 

In the last three years, motorists hit 25 horses from Reno’s Virginia Range, with 21 dying.  From just October to December of last year, vehicles collided with 13 horses on south Reno roads, according to a news report. Of those, nine horses died. 

Housing is at a premium in Reno, where the median price of an existing home reached $545,000 in December. Homebuilders are venturing where they’ve never gone before – right to the edge of inhabitable hills and gorges. 

“As this development pressure grows, and we’ve seen tremendous growth in South Reno, the habitat for wildlife is reduced, access to water sources often blocked, and it becomes problematic for any animals, the horses and all,” Reno City Councilwoman Naomi Duerr said last week during a video conference on a number of proposals to reduce collisions between motorists and horses. 

Wildlife advocates have volunteered and implemented a number of short-term solutions such as locating water troughs and food away from the roads as a diversion. But the work is labor-intensive and Sisiphyean at times. 

Fences erected by volunteers from the Wild Horse Connection, a non-profit organization, are designed to keep horses and other wildlife off the roads but are frequently cut by off-roaders seeking access to the land. Additionally, well-meaning individuals are eager to offer approaching horses a carrot or apple. Governments are considering issuing fines to those who violate state laws that prohibit feeding wild animals. 

Reno and Washoe County, which share jurisdiction of the area, have implemented flashing warning signs and augmented lighting in an effort to reduce collisions. Lowering speeds on South Reno roads is also an option, says Duerr. The city is conducting a speed study on South Veterans Parkway. Data is expected in the next few weeks.  

Unlike Nevada’s public lands, which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Virginia Range is 280,000 acres of mostly privately-owned land. It’s home to an estimated 3,000 wild horses, managed by the Nevada Department of Agriculture. 

Long-term proposals for protecting wildlife include the Nevada Department of Transportation applying for American Rescue Plan funds to build overpasses or underpasses for animals and off-road enthusiasts, a move experts say would alleviate the need to cut fences. The state has successfully constructed similar features for wildlife, NDOT officials said.  

“There is some designated funding in ARPA for wildlife crossings,” says Tracy Wilson of the American Wild Horse Campaign, adding the crossing area would be located on Geiger Grade, a state route, and would take several years for impact studies alone.  

Duerr is working on another proposal that entails purchasing land that is unsuitable for building for use as a dedicated wildlife corridor. 

“It’s not just the horses,” says Wilson of the challenges development poses to wildlife, including pronghorn antelope, deer, “and everything else that’s out there on our range. It’s securing those corridors as open spaces where they have a safe place to go and a natural water source. That’s the easiest answer. We’ve got to start securing that now or this range is going to be a patchwork of locked out animals, not just horses.” 

Another long term option calls for establishing a wildlife preserve to promote “horse tourism,” where residents and tourists could view and learn about horses and other animals in a protected setting, says Duerr.

An immediate step that’s producing results is controlling the horse population via contraceptive vaccines delivered via darts. The state partnered with the AWHC to implement the campaign, which has achieved zero population growth in about two years, says the organization’s executive director Suzanne Roy.

The effort is funded by donations and grants, and has bipartisan support from Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, and Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, a Republican. It’s also supported by Blockchains LLC, the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, wildhorse advocacy groups, and property owners who allow access to AWHC to deliver the vaccines.  

Since April of 2019, some 1,644 mares on the Virginia Range have been darted with the contraceptive vaccine.  

“We believe we’re probably at the point of population reduction, because there is a high mortality rate of foals out on the Virginia range, in large measure because of mountain lions. We have a very high kill rate from mountain lions,” says Roy. 

Wilson of the AWHC says 243 fewer foals were born on the range in 2021, a 43% reduction from the previous year. The mortality rate of foals born in 2021 was 46%.  

Developers in Northern Nevada, eager to get in on the booming market, have mixed reactions to mitigating the impacts of their construction, says Wilson, who keeps tabs on proposals. 

City officials, she says, are receptive to requiring concessions aimed at protecting wildlife. 

Wilson says she appealed plans for a 4,000-plus unit project called Daybreak, “because I didn’t feel it had enough precautions to keep horses off roadways and out of neighborhoods.” She says the developer “met immediately” and accepted conditions she proposed for self-closing gates and cattle guards, which were eventually approved by the city. 

Another builder who balked at Wilson’s concerns over a lack of water for wildlife, lost out on an application, she says, due to a technicality, and sold its land to another developer.

Officials intend to hold another meeting in May when they’ll discuss data from speed limit studies. 

Originally posted by Nevada Current