'State oversight needed': Horses an increasing hazard on US 50

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LYON COUNTY, Nev. (KOLO) Few wildland creatures stir emotions more readily than our wild horses.
But on a stretch of U-S 50 between Dayton and Silver Springs, this symbol of our Western heritage and open spaces is coming into conflict with modern day traffic with frightening frequency.

Close calls are all too common, but more and more they are ending badly for horse and driver. The latest crash involved a Lyon County deputy responding to a call. Suddenly out of the dark there were horses crossing the road in front of him.

When today's car collides with a large animal whose weight is high, it's extremely dangerous.

"This isn't like a deer or a coyote," says Lyon County Sheriff Al McNeil. "You've got 1500 pounds of dead weight coming down through the roof."

The deputy survived, but in the past, others have not, and these accidents are almost always fatal for the horses. Three died in this crash and they join a rapidly growing list.

"Just last year alone you're looking at probably right around 40 horses that died along Highway 50."

That's a huge increase over recent years.

McNeil says several factors including more traffic, an increased population on the range and fencing that's concentrated their movement may be at work, but he says the problem needs the state's attention.

That's not the direction one agency is moving. Last November, the state Agriculture Board canceled a contract with a wild horse advocate group that had been concentrating on reducing the herd through birth control, but their solution was to again outsource responsibility to an as-yet-unknown private party.

Whoever that private party will be, McNeil says, won't have the resources to tackle the problem.

"We opposed it because we believe the horse population needs government oversight at this time."

And, he says, a private party will be unlikely to shoulder the liability the issue demands. The sheriff says a solution begins with keeping the horses off the highway.

There's help coming on that front, but it won't be immediate. The state transportation department says it will be adding fencing as they widen 50 from Stagecoach to USA Parkway, and building three critter crossing underpasses on 50 and USA Parkway, allowing the horses safe passage. That project will begin next fall.

Finally, he says all parties will have to come up with some solution to manage the horses on the Virginia Range. That could include birth control and removing problem horses from the range.

McNeil says he's a fan of the wild horses, personally enjoys seeing them, but the current situation is dangerous for all.