GARDNERVILLE — Armed with a rifle and a hand-held, laser range-finder, Jim Havens stalks his target for hours before he can try to get off a clean shot in the foothills of northern Nevada’s Pine Nut Range.
He isn’t hunting deer or elk; he’s shooting wild horses — with contraceptive darts.
It’s part of the first public-private partnership of its kind aimed at controlling the herd’s population to keep the mustangs off neighborhood lawns and ultimately out of government holding pens.
“They are wild and we want to keep them wild,” said Sheila Schwadel, president of the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates in Gardnerville, 50 miles southeast of Reno.
Working with the Bureau of Land Management, the nonprofit group is using the contraceptive vaccine PZP with the help of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign to try to shrink the herd and eliminate nuisance complaints that could prompt more roundups.
“This is such a commonsense, middle ground and it is so much less expensive than rounding them up,” local board member Robin Havens told about 80 people who crowded into Gardnerville’s Fish Springs fire station for a presentation Thursday night.
The neighborhood is within 10 miles of a BLM Herd Management Area embroiled in a federal court battle. It’s also about 30 miles south of a herd of state-managed horses near Virginia City where many are struck by cars because they’ve become accustomed to people feeding them.
“We don’t want them to be like the Virginia Range horses, where people are waving carrots and the horses are coming up to cars,” Havens said.
Last February, U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks blocked the roundup of about 300 horses in the Pine Nuts. The BLM is conducting a new environmental review necessary to resume any gather, and agency officials say they may end up following the lead of the local project as part of their future management plans.
About half of the horses stay in the management area but half wander across the boundaries, including 60 to 80 that frequent Fish Springs.
Schwadel said they’ve maintained water tanks on the range for three years “to keep them from eating green lawns,” and keep an extensive database on every member of the herd to track which mares have been darted.
BLM District Ranger Frank Thomas encouraged area residents to volunteer for the project.
“This is really labor intensive,” Thomas said. “It’s a real struggle for these folks.”
Jim Havens said it can take hours to get within the 30 or 40 yards necessary to fire an accurate shot.
“You can’t act like you are stalking or hunting them because they get that whole thing. They are wild. They’ve got survival instincts,” he said.
Local rancher Fran Burger is among the few critics. Several mustangs used to gather at a water tank he maintains for his own horses, but he hasn’t seen them in six months “since some do-gooders tried to chase them out.”
“They’ve come to my ranch for 16 years and never done any damage,” Burger said. He said he rejected the BLM’s suggestion to fully fence and gate his property.
“The horses were there before me,” he explained.
Other critics include horse advocates opposed to contraception.
Protect Mustangs director Anne Novak said the population levels BLM supports are “way too low for genetic diversity and survival.”
“Fertility control and sterilization at this point endangers the survival of this cherished native species,” she said.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign opposes sterilization, but programs director Deniz Bolbol said PZP is a safe alternative that doesn’t disrupt female hormones.
“They maintain their natural wild and social behavior, they just can’t get pregnant,” said Bolbol, a big fan of the Nevada project. “Usually I’m fighting — fighting against roundups or fighting against spaying or gelding horses. This is what grassroots is all about.’”