Pickens hopes to purchase Nevada ranch for horse sanctuary

Oct 23, 2009

Pickens hopes to purchase Nevada ranch for horse sanctuary

Madeleine Pickens, wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens and founder of the National Wild Horse Foundation (NWHF), is in negotiations to purchase a historic Nevada ranch which she hopes to convert into a non-profit wild horse sanctuary, learning center, and tourist destination. Currently, NWHF has made offers on the IL of Tuscarorra, NV, and the Big Springs and Spruce ranches out of Wells, NV, after negotiations to purchase the 1 million acre Winecup Gamble ranch in northeastern Nevada fell through. Pickens has been promoting her sanctuary proposal to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Congress, and has agreed to participate in competitive bidding on contracts for the long-term care of wild horses which have been removed from the range. Yet several legal obstacles presently stand in the way of the project’s viability. Further, there has been concern that the legislative changes Pickens is seeking to make her proposal feasible could ultimately lead to a significant expansion of the public lands designated as wild horse range, a key feature of the highly controversial Restoring Our American Mustangs (ROAM) legislation which Pickens strongly supports.

The Pickens proposal is to purchase one of Nevada’s historic cattle ranches which will be retired from agricultural production and opened as a wild horse sanctuary. The sanctuary, consisting of both private ranch land and the attached public grazing allotments, will be jointly managed by Pickens’ non-profit group NWHF and BLM. Initially, through a cooperative agreement, the sanctuary will become home to the 10,000 wild horses currently held by BLM in short-term holding facilities (corrals) which presently constitute the single biggest drain on BLM’s wild horse management budget. Subsequently, Pickens proposes to introduce 2,000 to 4,000 horses yearly to the sanctuary which have been gathered off public rangeland by BLM but could not be adopted out. Depending on the stocking capacity of the ranch and the availability of forage, she envisions the sanctuary ultimately carrying between 20,000 and 30,000 wild horses. According to the proposal, the herd will be non-reproducing.

The stated purpose of Pickens’ proposed sanctuary is to provide a natural rangeland habitat to unadoptable horses, and further, to attract visitors and educate them about wild horses and their history. According to Pickens’ representative, Jerry Reynoldson, in addition to numerous infrastructural additions, such as a science learning center and a state-of-the-art vet facility, Pickens plans to build a motel, cabins, hiking trails and other amenities on the ranch with a view to making it a major "eco-tourism" destination. "We’d like to attract a million visitors a year" to the northern Nevada sanctuary, explains Reynoldson.

Reynoldson is quick to point out that the sanctuary will be run as a non-profit entity. All profits will be spent on the upkeep and improvement of the facility.

In theory, the sanctuary would constitute a partial solution to BLM’s overload of horses in short-term holding, a problem which is impeding their ability to conduct timely gathers to control horse numbers on the range and could thereby benefit ranchers. There is, however, considerable skepticism within the ranching community regarding Pickens’ ultimate goals and motives. At very least, questions are being raised concerning the potential fallout from the legislative changes which are necessary to make Pickens’ proposal viable.

Of particular concern is the fact that much of the land on these vast ranches where Pickens proposes to run wild horses is on public grazing allotments. The 1971 Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act specifies that: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize the Secretary to relocate wild free-roaming horses or burros to areas of the public lands where they do not presently exist." In other words, according to the law, horses are only allowed to roam and be managed on the locations where they were found in 1971, thereby limiting the public lands where horses can range. Therefore, given the present law, it would not be permissible for horses to be placed on the public lands grazing allotments which make up a large part of the proposed sanctuary.

In order for Pickens’ proposal to be workable, that part of the law would have to be amended, or otherwise got round, allowing for the opening up of new public lands as wild horse range. The question is, how would this be done, and how much new public land would it open up?

According to information on her Web site, www.madeleinepickens.com, Pickens is proposing only to increase the public lands available for wild horses if those lands are on "suitable ranches with public and private lands. Relocation should be authorized only if the Secretary enters into a Cooperative Agreement to form a partnership using the private and public lands to provide for a permanent home for horses."

Reynoldson emphasized that NWHF is not seeking to open up vast amounts of public lands to horses, only to provide for a special exception to the rule. "It would not be a blanket change," explains Reynoldson. Rather, NWHF is proposing that wild horse territory only be expanded for the express purposes of creating public/private sanctuaries for horses.

As a means to making the Pickens proposal viable, Reynoldson recognized two approaches: "We would either work with (the BLM) to do it administratively, or work to change law." But therein lies the worry. Madeleine Pickens has also been a very strong proponent of Congressman Rahall’s, D-WV, proposed ROAM legislation (H.R. 1018), going so far as to testify before the House on March 3 in favor of the bill.

The signature feature of ROAM is to change the language of the 1971 law to open up vast areas of public lands to wild horses, a tactic which has met with strong opposition from agricultural, conservation, and sporting communities alike. According to a letter from the Public Lands Foundation to the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource committee, "Allowing wild horses to expand outside of their HMAs (horse management areas) will result in management chaos by guaranteeing an increase in their numbers and direct conflicts with wildlife, recreation, livestock and most other uses of public lands. If (ROAM) is striving for ‘a thriving ecological balance’... this is undeniably not the way to achieve it."

In short, despite the express denial that Pickens’ proposal could lead to a significant expansion of public land designated as horse habitat, doubts linger as to whether there might be a slippery slope from the limited changes Pickens officially proposes for her sanctuary towards a more general opening up of public lands to wild horse herds as proposed in the ROAM legislation she favors.

Interestingly, the contentious issue of opening up additional public lands for horses could be avoided if Pickens’ sanctuary was proposed in a Midwestern or an eastern location where most land is privately owned. The concept of opening horse sanctuaries in eastern and Midwestern locations was recently championed in the wild horse management plan unveiled by Ken Salazar, secretary of the Department of the Interior. Not only are forage and water resources superior in these locations to those available in the arid West, but, according to Salazar’s plan, it provides an opportunity to showcase the wild horses in regions where people would not typically be able to see and enjoy them.

But despite Salazar’s strong interest in creating a national solution to the wild horse issue, limited forage and water in the arid West, and the legal hurdles involved, according to Reynoldson, NWHF still believes that Nevada is the place to build a wild horse sanctuary: "The foundation plan is to create a living museum for the public, showcasing the horses in their natural setting. We feel that Nevada is the right place to do this." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent