The Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) is soliciting proposals for managing the estray Virginia Range horses. But the group formerly charged with managing the animals argues that the NDA eventually intends to remove or destroy the herd.

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

The NDA entered into a herd management agreement with the wild horse advocacy group Return to Freedom, which used grant revenue to help authorities develop strategies to eliminate the need to remove horses from the range. In 2016, the NDA amended the agreement to transfer all herd management responsibilities to the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC). However, the NDA later notified AWHPC that it would seek a new coordinating partner to manage the herd.

On Jan. 30, the NDA issued a request for proposals to find new owners of the Virginia Range herd. Jim Barbee, NDA director, said applicants must detail plans for horse management and fertility control, as well as how they would partner with stakeholders, including state and local government agencies. The selected nonprofit owner will have full decision-making capacity over the herd’s management, he said.

“Our No. 1 priority has always been the protection of public safety, which requires access to resources that we have never possessed,” Barbee said. “Our hope is that, under new ownership, the horses can be managed on the range according to their needs.”

However, AWHPC Communications Director Deniz Bolbol believes the liability associated with owning 3,000 free-ranging horses will prevent any legitimate animal advocacy group will from accepting herd ownership, “therefore, only an entity that intends to remove and destroy the horses could possibly assume ownership. The NDA set the stage to destroy the Virginia Range horses by wrongfully terminating its community-based Cooperative Agreements with AWHPC for humane management. That’s unconscionable and we will not allow it to stand.”

Prospective new owners have until April 16 to submit their proposals to the NDA.