Scott Sonner / The Associated Press

RENO — The state of Nevada has signed a cooperative agreement with wild horse protection advocates allowing longtime critics of mustang roundups to have the first chance at purchasing state-captured animals that otherwise might end up at the slaughterhouse.

The agreement between Nevada’s Department of Agriculture and California-based Return to Freedom Inc. doesn’t affect the roundup of federally protected horses on mostly U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands in Nevada and much of the West. But it means that in at least three northern Nevada counties, the mustang’s allies won’t have to outbid slaughterhouse buyers at state-sponsored auctions, as they were forced to do this year when dozens of horses were offered for sale.

Instead, the group that serves as the parent organization for the national American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign will have two business days to pay $100 per horse for those the state gathers due to threats they pose on state roads and highways in the Virginia Range southeast of Reno, the municipality of Carson City and surrounding Washoe, Storey and Lyon Counties.

Members of the national coalition who have been pressing for such an agreement say it’s a significant development — the only one of its kind in the country.

“We are extremely proud of this important step toward preventing Nevada’s iconic wild horses from falling into the clutches of kill-buyers at auction,” said Kevin O’Neill, a senior legislative director for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Neda DeMayo, president and founder of the nonprofit Return to Freedom that provides refuge to 400 wild horses at a refuge in Lompoc, Calif., is hopeful the agreement will lead to long-term changes that include more emphasis on trying to keep the animals running wild on the range through alternative management.

“A host of solutions — including birth control, fencing and diversionary feeding and watering — are available to mitigate public safety concerns,” she said.

The deal forbids purchasers of the horses from returning them to the Virginia Range.