By Richard Bednarski
In south Reno at the north end of Rio Wrangler Parkway, a gate often gets left open. That is leading to a host of issues for local residents and officials with the City of Reno, Nevada Department of Transportation and American Wild Horse Campaign.
More than 3,000 horses battling drought and population growth pass through this gate in search of green pastures among the fastest growing region of Reno.
“There were about 25 horse-vehicle accidents in that area, near Veterans Parkway,” Reno City Council member Naomi Duerr said.
She said they happened between December 2019 and December 2021, referring to a report the city has compiled documenting horse-car collisions.
The Dayton area experienced 24 collisions last year alone.
The collisions in south Reno led to the death of 21 horses. Twice as many collisions happened in 2021 than 2020. These incidents often result in the death of the horse and a shaken driver, not to mention a possibly totaled car. The vast majority of these collisions occurred at night.
On Thursday, Feb. 10, local officials held a public information session, drawing more than 100 people for nearly two hours of questions and answers. This session was held to inform the public about proposed plans to address the growing concern of this horse population being impacted by human development.
Duerr presented on what is being done and what future plans look like, while officials from the non-profit American Wild Horse Campaign explained the fertility control program that has been underway for three years.
Officials from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, Nevada Department of Transportation, Reno Police Department, and another nonprofit—Wild Horse Connection—were also on hand.
The city’s Ward 2, which includes most of south Reno, has grown in population by an estimated 15,000 people in the past decade based on 2020 Census figures and recent redistricting efforts.
More development is coming.
Ongoing growth has increased people feeding the horses, gates getting left open and the amount of landscaping available for the horses to dine on. While it is illegal to feed feral or estray horses under state law, the city enforces local statutes as well.
“We may at the City of Reno adopt the same law that the state has adopted and enforce a fine for feeding horses,” explained Duerr.
In a phone call, Duerr said many people are new to the region and may not understand the complications that arise from feeding the horses.
Another misconception is whether or not horses are native to North America. While there are fossil records of populations dating back more than 30,000 years, it is widely accepted among archeologists and paleontologists that the majority of the remaining horses went extinct around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
They were reintroduced into an ecosystem that had evolved without horses soon after Anglo-Europeans began colonizing North America.
Managing horses on public lands is widely left to humans. In Nevada there are federal programs managed by the Bureau of Land Management on public lands and local programs closer to communities.
“There are two big things that help with the horse strikes,” explained Duerr. “One is diversionary feeding.”
This is simply providing food in areas that are removed from roadways and development and physically pull the horses away from potential collisions. The second, and proven strategy, is widespread fencing.
“We have put together a conceptual fencing plan that is pretty innovative,” Duerr said.
Reno resident Greg Burst spoke at the forum and said he has woken up to fresh horse manure most mornings for the past decade. He asked what local residents can do to dissuade the horses from coming into the neighborhood.
“The main thing we can do is fencing,” said Nevada State Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, whose jurisdiction covers this area as well.
Shoeing them out of a yard could help the homeowner, but the horse may dart out into potentially busy streets and compound the issue.
Tracy Wilson, with Wild Horse Connection, said fencing is the best way to keep horses out of your yard.
“Nevada is a fence-out state. It is the property owner’s job to keep wild animals and cattle and people off their property by building fencing,” Duerr explained. She cited the fact that the majority of the Virginia Hills are privately owned.
Beyond feeding and fencing
In the Steamboat and Hidden Valley neighborhoods,Wilson pointed to the installation of cattle guards which reduced collisions to zero. She helps coordinate the fertility program that has been underway for three years.
While the fencing has proven effective in other areas around the Virginia Hills, notably along Highway 50, horse-car collisions have plummeted, according to Wilson, due to fertility control.
The fertility program uses a proven immune-contraceptive known as porcine zona pellucida (PZP). It has been widely used across the globe for 30 years to control equine populations. It creates an immune response that blocks the receptors for the egg to receive the sperm.
“It does not allow the fertilization of the egg,” explained American Wild Horse Campaign’s Greg Hendricks. “With 96% efficacy [it] really works well when administered correctly.”
This fertility program is conducted by volunteers. Funding is primarily secured via donations and grants. In years one and two, the program has cost $277,000.
Both Wilson and Hendricks said they are seeing a reduction in the local wild horse population. They said they are hopeful diversionary feeding and fertility control will begin to reduce population growth to below zero.
Year three results are expected later this spring after foaling season, which typically happens in March and April.
Duerr said she is aware that growing populations, both human and horse, have presented a difficult challenge. She has drafted a plan to establish an outdoor corridor in the region that will provide not just recreation opportunities but real estate for horses.
“If we squeeze them further with fencing, then we’ve got to say where they can go,” she said. This is why she is also a proponent of establishing a nature preserve that will benefit birds in addition to horses, which she said is part of a long-term vision for the city.
The city and NDOT are also looking into highway over or under-passes. These are wildlife throughways that do not disrupt animal movements and migrations. Under the recently passed infrastructure bill, there is funding available for states to construct these wildlife corridors.
“The things we have been doing to date have not been that costly,” said Duerr as the forum wrapped up.
Extra lighted signs and additional police patrols have all been funded through the general fund. Fencing and wildlife corridors are going to cost more money, but Duerr emphasized there is planning in place to secure funding for these projects.
“They are capital improvement projects,” she said, adding that the City, Washoe County and NDOT have heard the public’s input and are working to incorporate funding into the proposals.
A draft plan is expected to be released later in the fall that could address many of the issues raised at the forum. The next public information session is scheduled for May 16.
Officials encouraged residents to reach out to the City of Reno Hotline at 775-344-INFO, the Wild Horse Hotline at 775-352-3944 or call the Washoe County Hotline at 311 if they see an injured horse, damaged fence, open gate or any other issue that may impact human and horse interactions.