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Water Rights and Horse Huggers
by John Smith
May 22, 2011 | 460 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A horse walks into a bar.

The bartender comes over and says, “Why the long face?”

Who knows, maybe the equine was a mustang that had just heard about AB329, the malodorous pile of legislation that should be drawing flies and instead is attracting bipartisan support from Nevada elected officials who should know better. An element of the legislation, which has already passed a vote in the Assembly by a wide margin, changes the definition of “wildlife” to include “any wild animal, wild bird, reptile amphibian, mollusk or crustacean naturally found in a wild state whether indigenous to Nevada or not and whether raised in captivity or not. The term does not include any horse or burro.”

Not surprisingly, the bill was structured on behalf of Nevada’s ranchers, who have long protested the existence of wild horses on their rangeland. By “their” rangeland, of course, I mean the extremely arid federal land used for graze by their cows and sheep. Those wild horses, about 16,000 of them in the Silver State, compete for what grass exists in Nevada.

Not only that, but the horses drink from stock ponds and watering holes that are maintained by the ranchers, who accuse the mustangs of muddying the precious resources. The bachelor males are known to treat water holes the way rock stars trash hotel rooms.

Advocates for the wild horses believe the change in the legal language one day will mean ranchers will feel no compunction about driving mustangs away from water sources, which is a good way to thin their numbers and reduce the grazing competition. Some call the horse huggers paranoid. But they point to decades of history to illustrate their contention that their fears are justified: Many ranchers have wanted wild horses off the range and into the slaughterhouse for decades.

Backers of the measure contend the horse huggers are overwrought without cause. They say the bill is intended to prevent the federal government from grabbing new water rights aimed at serving the horses and unintentionally encouraging the growth of the already unwieldy population.

The trouble with wrenching any law that has an impact on the wild horses is two-fold: One, they’re federally protected by the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act and the Bureau of Land Management should be playing bartender on their behalf. Two, the horses have no shortage of advocates capable of splashing the cause of the animals in newspapers and on television sets all over the world.

Because the ranchers largely haven’t shown good faith in embracing the federally protected beasts, their credibility on the issue is reed-slim.

This battle has been fought and won by advocates of the wild horse. Instead of accepting the fact that wild horses and burros enjoy a modicum of federal protection, and taking advantage of their mystique by repositioning themselves in the public eye, ranchers and their allies in the Legislature insist on playing games of semantics and encouraging litigation that Nevada simply can’t win either in court or in the court of public opinion.

Perhaps the bipartisan brain trust that’s backing AB329 labored under the mistaken belief that such onerous and politically charged language might somehow slip into law without scrutiny, while the rest of the state was busy fretting about the wobbly budget and the fragile economy. What they fail to take into consideration is the way this bill makes Nevada look in the eyes of the nation and horse-loving world.

In a word, cruel.

At least now we know why the horse that walked into the bar had such a long face.

He was parched and looking for water.

John L. Smith writes a weekly column on rural Nevada. He also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reach him at 702 383-0295 or at
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