RENO -- With the financial backing of a California winery owner, activists on Saturday purchased almost all 174 horses up for sale at a state-sanctioned auction in Nevada to keep the horses from going to the slaughterhouse.
Stephanie Hoefener of the Lancaster, Calif.-based Livesavers Wild Horse Rescue group said activists purchased 172 horses for $31,415. The other two horses were acquired by private individuals for their personal use, she said.
"We're excited so many people came together to save the horses," Hoefener said. "This is amazing, and we all feel joyful."
The horses were rounded up by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management last month near the Nevada-Utah line and turned over to the Nevada Department of Agriculture for disposal.
Agriculture department officials acknowledge the estray horses could have wound up at slaughterhouses because they did not have the federal protections afforded to wild-roaming horses.
The horses are believed to be strays or descendants of horses abandoned by private owners over the years in Pilot Valley north of West Wendover.
"For advocacy groups to step up to the plate and make a financial commitment like this to save the horses, we think this is a wonderful thing," Nevada Department of Agriculture spokesman Ed Foster said.
Jill Starr, president of Lifesavers, said the purchase of the horses at the Fallon auction was made possible by the financial backing of Ellie Phipps Price, owner of Sand Hill Durell Vineyards in Sonoma, Calif. Madeleine Pickens, wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, also contributedfinanciallyy.
Starr said high bidders of such horses usually are representatives of slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. The meat of the horses is processed for sale in Europe and Asia, where it fetches as much as $25 a pound, she added.
"We showed the BLM and the Nevada Department of Agriculture that we will not let them throw our wild horses away like yesterday's news," Starr said. "They are important to every American and hold high value as part of our country's history."
BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said her agency didn't consider the 174 horses as federally protected mustangs because they came from a valley with more than 200 landowners.
"We look at the long-term history of what is going on out there in Pilot Valley," she said. "Who knows what horses were released over time."
The BLM has launched an effort to remove thousands of wild horses from the range across the West, saying the roundups are necessary because the mustang population is growing so rapidly that the animals are running out of food and damaging the range.
Activists have sued over the roundups, contending the agency is removing the mustangs to make room for livestock grazing and other interests.