Wild horses _ symbols of the American West that receive protections from the federal government _ would have less standing than mollusks when it comes to Nevada water law under a measure that seeks to deny mustangs and burros status as wild animals.
The six lines contained in the measure define the term "wildlife" as "any wild mammal, wild bird, fish, reptile amphibian, mollusk or crustacean found naturally in a wild state, whether indigenous to Nevada or not and whether raised in captivity of not. The term does not include any wild horse or burro."
Under state law, holders of water rights must show "beneficial use" of the valuable resource before a permit is granted by the state engineer. Benefiting wildlife is one such allowable use.
Wild horse advocates say if the bill passes it will deprive the animals access to water across the harsh desert landscape.
Backers of the bill deny that claim. They argue that the bill's intent is to keep the federal government from obtaining new water rights specifically for horses in the future, and force the federal government's hand to deal with too many horses on the range.
AB329 received bipartisan support in the Assembly, passing 35-7. It's up for hearing Friday before the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
"Contrary to the claims of AB329 supporters, this proposed law could have a catastrophic impact on wild horses and burros who depend on these natural waters for survival," said Bruce Wagman, a lawyer representing the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in opposing the bill.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is charged with overseeing the estimated 33,000 wild horses that roam freely in 10 Western states. About half of those are in Nevada.
Kelvin Hickenbottom, deputy state water engineer, said the BLM currently holds 28 water right permits for wildlife in which horses and burros are identified as users of the water.
The bill, he said, "would not allow us to issue a water right for wild horses." The state agency is neutral on the bill.
Alan Shepherd, BLM wild horse program manager in Nevada, said the agency's existing water rights are at or near designated herd management areas, where wild horses and burros were included under the wildlife definition.
If the bill becomes law, it will "put a different spin on how permits are evaluated in the future," he said.
One sponsor of the measure, Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said he introduced the bill at the request of ranchers and hunters. Goicoechea said the bill would not deny animals access to water, and any water rights currently held by the federal government for horses would be grandfathered. And while the state is responsible for its own wildlife, it lacks jurisdiction over horses and burros that are federally protected under the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act. Based on that argument, the BLM should take care of them, he said.
Democratic Assemblyman David Bobzien of Reno, another sponsor, said the goal is to not perpetuate the horse problem by making water available.
"We have a situation out of whack," he said. "I don't want to see an exacerbation of the situation."
Granting water rights, he said, "releases the pressure value on the federal government to manage wild horses."
"There is a broad coalition asking for management of wild horses," Bobzien said.
Kyle Davis, with the Nevada Conservation League, agreed.
"Wild horses are currently causing significant environmental damage on the range," he said.