The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has started removing 1,480 horses south of Battle Mountain and plans to begin removing 450 more in January south of Gerlach, agency spokesman JoLynn Worley said.
Without the actions, she said, the animals could starve this winter because of extremely limited forage. The horses will be sent to a BLM coral just north of Reno to be readied for adoption or long-term holding.
"Once the snow gets on the ground it'll be even more difficult for the horses to find what limited forage is out there," Worley said.
But horse advocates sharply criticized the agency, saying the roundups will exacerbate a problem that has led to nearly as many horses being kept in long-term corrals as remain on the range.
The problem has become so great that in recent months BLM officials have considered for the first time euthanizing some wild horses as a way to reduce the populations in the future.
"We shouldn't be rounding up any more horses until we resolve the issue of tens of thousands of horses that already have been rounded up and are in holding pens," said Matt Rossell, outreach coordinator for the San Rafael, Calif.-based animal rights group In Defense of Animals.
The two roundups will reduce the number of wild horses that roam the open range in 10 Western states to about 31,000. The BLM has set a target "appropriate management level" of horses at 27,000 in the wild.
Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute based in Washington D.C., disputed the agency's conclusion that an emergency exists.
"They're not starving, and they're using it as an excuse to remove more horses," Heyde said. "They can survive if we can keep our little fingers off them."
Worley said leaving the herds alone could cause large die-offs and damage rangelands.
"It would basically be a natural disaster," she said.
The agency rounds up excess horses and offers them for adoption. Those too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities.
Last month, the BLM announced it will round up fewer wild horses and try to shuffle funds within the agency to hold off for now on killing large numbers of the animals in an effort to control herds and rising costs.
Deputy Director Henri Bisson has said maintaining the wild horse and burro program for another year will give time to explore possible options to euthanasia.
Horse advocates said possible solutions include reducing livestock grazing, stepping up birth control and removing fences to provide better access to water.
"Do all these other things and there will be less need for removal," Heyde said. "I think we'll definitely see some changes" under President-elect Barack Obama.
The two Nevada roundups are among nine nationally that have been approved for the current fiscal year that runs through Oct. 31, 2009, Worley said. Nevada is home to about half of the wild horses on the range.
"If in Nevada we have another emergency situation, then we would request funding through Washington," she said.
BLM officials have said the agency faces a crisis because of the skyrocketing costs of caring for the horses in long-term facilities where the animals live out their days — some for as long as 20 years.
A report released last month by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the BLM this year will spend about $27 million — about three-fourths of its budget — caring for the animals.