The Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) has voted to terminate its cooperative agreement with American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC) and to transfer ownership of a herd of estray horses from the NDA to a yet-to-be-named nonprofit organization. The AWHPC, however, believes the transfer violates public opinion and is not in the horses’ best interests.

The state of Nevada has jurisdiction over the estrays, called the Virginia Range herd, which descend from domestic horses turned out on the range by owners and are not protected under the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. The herd became controversial when some in the area called for the horses’ removal to prevent them from wandering onto public roadways and private property.

In 2013, in an effort to manage the herd’s size, the NDA entered into a cooperative agreement with the wild horse advocate group Return to Freedom (RTF), whereby the RTF could purchase the collected horses for $100 per head on an as-is basis.

Later the NDA and RTF signed another cooperative agreement that used an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals grant to allow RTF to work with agricultural authorities to develop birth control, fencing, and diversionary feeding strategies to eliminate the need to remove horses from the range. Also, under the Virginia Range Cooperative Agreement, RTF worked with local organizations to implement the horse management programs.

In 2016, the agreement was amended to transfer all responsibilities to AWHPC.

In a written statement, the NDA said that AWHPC notified the agency that it would not be fulfilling all items in the agreement. As such, the statement said, the NDA is currently seeking a new coordinating partner that “has the tools and resources to manage feral livestock.”

“Our number one priority is to protect public safety, and that requires collaboration between state, local, and nonprofit partners,” said NDA Director Jim Barbee. “In addition to working with a coordinating partner, the NDA can assist local law enforcement with removal of feral horses upon request.”

In a separate statement, the AWHPC said the NDA vote conflicts with public opinion.

“The unelected members of the Board of Agriculture just voted to give away Nevada’s historic Virginia Range horses to a private owner who will be free to do what it wants with them,” the AWHPC statement said. “This goes against the wishes of the public and the northern Nevada business community which want these horses protected.”

A new Virginia Range agreement remains pending.