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It takes a Village: The Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates

pine nut wild horse advocates non profit logo

The Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates non-profit organization has become a model for working with the community and the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to manage local wild horse populations in Gardnerville, Nevada. Much of my time as a wild horse photographer is spent on the Fish Springs Range since it is one of the closest ranges to my home.

So it was interesting this past month when I had the opportunity to interview my dear friend Mary Cioffi, President of the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates, about the work they are doing and some of the successes they’ve had. As a frequent visitor to the range and fellow photographer, Mary also has a wealth of stories about the horses, as well as some interesting insights about wild horse behavior.

Mary Cioffi president of the pine nut wild horse advocates organization
Mary Cioffi

Maria: Mary, thank you for making time today to talk about my favorite subject - wild horses. I know you are also passionate about them and their preservation. What inspired you to become an advocate for wild horses and how long have you been involved in this effort?

Mary: In 2012, I was selling homes in a subdivision near Dayton and Stagecoach and began photographing the wild horses in that area. I discovered there were also wild horses close to home in the Fish Springs area through a lady that came into my office and asked for help. Her neighbor, who had been watering the wild horses in the area for many years, moved and the new owners did not want to keep the tank filled. So this lady moved the water tank to her house up the road, which caused a neighborhood dispute because of the wild horses gathering in the neighborhood. She showed me a video of the band stallion sharing water with his family at the tank. I was so impressed with the manners of the stallion in the video that I went to see him for myself. 

This was my introduction to the problems humans can cause for wild horses when they lure them into residential areas with water.  There was plenty of water in the hills, but the humans wanted to see the horses nearby so they provided water so they could see them. The problem was solved when the tank was moved back into the hills and the BLM agreed we could truck water in for the horses.

two wild horses touching noses

Photo Credit: Wild Horse Photographer Maria Marriott

Maria: There are many local advocate groups across the country working to protect and maintain wild horses on our public lands. Your organization seems to have struck a good balance in your approach - working with both the local community to build support and the Bureau of Land Management to build compromises. Can you tell us about the work that Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates does?

Mary: We have a wonderful group of volunteers. Everyone plays a different role.

We have a team that trucks water to the water tanks back in the hills. The tanks have been pushed back even further away from homes to discourage the horses from going near residential areas. We have community meetings to educate the public on the wild horses, the problems and solutions we have to keep them roaming free and to educate them on wild horse behavior.  

We work together with the BLM to protect the horses, and to provide birth control to the mares so we can avoid future round ups and removal.  We have successfully reduced the reproduction rate on this range by over 90%. We have a skilled group of people who are certified by the Science and Conservation Center to provide birth control remotely, with a dart rifle in the wild. We have another group that identifies the mares to dart for the darters. 

Mary recovers a dart after providing birth control to a mare on the Fish Springs range.
Mary Cioffi at the Fish Springs range during a trip to "dart" the mares for natural birth control.

Over the years, we have compiled a data base with photos of every horse on the range, with their dates of birth, family connections and genetics. We have traveled to Washington DC to discuss our small herd with the Department of the Interior and were successful in getting the last scheduled round up in our area stopped. 

The political issues surrounding wild horses across the west require so much research. The wild horse issue is a political hot potato, as the livestock industry and hunters strive to eradicate all the horses roaming free. Livestock owners

want the feed on the range reserved for livestock and, since the horses have been congressionally protected since 1971, hunters have no use for them. Both groups have strong financial backing and are willing to invest the time and funds to eliminate the free-roaming wild horses from public lands. 

In our area the wild horses are important as they reduce the fuel sources that can cause wild land fires. Our community loves the wild horses of the Fish Spring Range.

Maria: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges wild horses face - both in general, and in your area?

Mary: The BLM, the government authority charged with managing the wild horses on public lands, has been doing a poor job of it. They have a complete lack of understanding of how wild horses are able to survive in harsh conditions, instead relying on roundups and removal. 

Photo Credit: Wild Horse Photographer Maria Marriott

The livestock Industry has politicized the issue, believing that public lands should be managed for their benefit. A system for ranchers was put into place in 1934, yet times have changed dramatically since then. The Taylor Grazing Act was never intended to convey a right, title or interest in our public lands.  Yet ranchers demand the right to use the lands for their livestock, even during times of drought.  However, some of the ranching communities are now becoming a part of the solution by participating in the use of fertility control with wild horses. 

a wild horse walking against mountains background
Wild Stallion "Blondie" | Photo Credit: Maria Marriott

We cannot manage the lands owned by Americans in 2023 in the same manner we did in 1934. The current system, where wild horses are removed from public lands with claims of overgrazed lands and then warehoused at the taxpayers' expense is costly. Then livestock are allowed on the same land for a low fee to livestock owners. The BLM manages 155 million acres of land. Of these, less than 27 million acres are Herd Mangement Areas where wild horses are permitted.  

This entire BLM program needs a fresh set of eyes that considers the desires of Americans and science. 

Maria: One of the areas you’ve seemed to have success is in working with local homeowners. How do you engage with the local community to raise awareness about wild horse conservation?

Mary: We educate the public by many methods. Social media, public meetings, mail out material, and knocking on doors.

Most importantly, we are on the range and we stop to introduce ourselves to people coming to see the wild horses. These interactions are important to answer any questions they may have. 

a wild mare and her baby
Photo Credit: Maria Marriott

Maria: What are some of the other success stories or accomplishments that Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates can be proud of?

Mary: We have reduced the reproduction rate of the Fish Springs Range by over 90%. We have been successful in placing every horse removed either in an adoption home or in a sanctuary. No horses from the Fish Springs Range have been sent to long-term holding since our program has been in place.  This is important to our community as we never want one of the wild horses from our range to be at risk of slaughter.

Our goal is to protect the wild horses AND the range they roam on. With the cooperation and support of the American Wild Horse Campaign over 3300 acres of land in the Pine Nut Mountains have been purchased and placed into conservation easements to assure the wild horses and other wildlife always have fresh water in the Pine Nut Mountains. 

Maria: Are there any specific legislative or policy changes you believe would benefit wild horse conservation efforts at the state or national level?

Mary: Pass the SAFE ACT, a bipartisan bill that permanently bans horse slaughter in the United States and prohibits the exportation of horses for slaughter.

Maria: You have so many great stories about your countless hours observing the wild horses on the Pine Nut range. I especially like your story about seeing “Shorty” improvise a coat for himself in the freezing cold by immersing in a pond and then rolling in the sand. Can you share any other personal encounters you've had with the wild horses that have left a lasting impact on you?

Mary: One of my favorite memories was a day I watched “Blue” gather three of his yearling fillies together. He walked the three fillies, together with the mare “Auntie Lilly”, to calm them and lead them down the hill. “Old Socks” met “Blue” on the trail, they pawed and squealed for a bit and then went over to the three fillies. “Socks” sniffed and nuzzled the girls and said hello, with “Blue” standing next to them supervising. 

a blue roan wild horse running on a field of sage bushes
Wild Stallion "Blue" | Photo Credit: Maria Marriott

“Socks” then went back to his band and pushed his three senior mares away from the band. He returned to “Blue’s” fillies and escorted one of them, the bay yearling “Gabby”, over to the three senior mares. The mares all nuzzled Gabby and seemed to be interviewing her. After about 15 minutes, “Socks” returned to them and escorted the filly to the rest of his band. 

brown wild stallion under the sun
Wild Stallion "Socks" | Photo Credit: Maria Marriott

She was welcomed by the band and hung out with them for several minutes. “Socks” then came back to fetch her and return her to “Blue”. The group of fillies, along with “Lilly”, all galloped back to their band giddy, squealing and kicking up their heels. One week later “Gabby” was discovered living in “Sock’s” band and a few days later her sister “Annie” joined as well.  Fascinating to watch.

Maria: How can individuals who are passionate about wild horse advocacy get involved and make a difference?

a yellow sign saying do not feed or touch wild horses

Mary: We need educated advocates now, more than ever. I encourage people to read the material created by the American Wild Horse Campaign and Wild Horse Education.

Partner with the professional organizations who are committed to the issue and have taken this on as their life's work. Wild horse advocacy is a tough arena to work in and those that hang in there and keep up the fight deserve and have earned our respect. 

I recommend you support the organizations who are committed to the issues and read everything you can get your eyes on, so you are educated. It is our responsibility as wild horse advocates to protect the natural behaviors of wild horses. Those natural behaviors are the only difference between wild horses and domestic horses. 

We always need the new advocates’ energy and enthusiasm. But it takes more than passion and emotion. The best thing an advocate can do is learn from and respect the advocates who have been fighting for years. Education is the key to protecting wild horses; and when combined with passion and enthusiasm it can really help in the fight to help the wild horses. 

Maria: What are your hopes and goals for the future of wild horse conservation, both for Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates and on a broader scale?

wild horse rests her head on the back of another horse
Photo Credit: Maria Marriott

Mary: I always pray that advocates will find a way to get to the hearts and ears of those Americans who are not familiar with the wild horse issue. If a popular TV program, like Yellowstone, made it a subject on their show, showing all sides of the story, it would help bring awareness. Americans would be appalled if they knew the facts about the tragic deaths and injuries from helicopter roundups, the insane cost to the taxpayers to remove and maintain them in holding facilities, and the small percentage of public land the wild horses are permitted on.  A well-done documentary and national awareness campaign is needed now more than ever.  

Maria: Thank you again, Mary, for your time today and for all you do to help preserve the freedom of the wild horses. I look forward to seeing you again at the range!

If you’d like to read more about what the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates do, be sure to visit And while you are there, I encourage you to donate to help the organization in their efforts to administer birth control to the mares and build fencing at the edges of the range. Or you can help by purchasing the 2024 Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates Calendar for yourself or for you loved ones.

If you've visited the Fish Springs wild horses, please make sure to leave a comment!

a woman signing a wild horse photograph

A Wild Horse Photographer’s Journey

An equestrian for most of her life, award winning equine photographer, Maria Marriott, combines her passion for horses with her wild horse art and the desire to bring public awareness to the American mustangs and the healing power of horses. She is proud to have her equine fine art in collectors’ homes and offices throughout the world. Maria Marriott Photography is a proud supporter of non-profit organizations that tirelessly work to ensure the well-being of the American wild horses and promote healing through equine therapy.

Wild Horse Artwork

Wild horse photography has become for me a means of storytelling, advocacy, and preservation. As I travel the untamed landscapes of the American West, capturing the grace and beauty of wild mustangs, I hope to instill in others the same sense of wonder and respect for these magnificent creatures and the beautiful creation all around us. So, reach out to me online and together, through art, let’s preserve the legacy of America's wild horses, ensuring that they remain forever free and wild.


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