East Nevada ranch is choice for horse sanctuary

Oct 15, 2010

Imagine this: A tour bus creeps across the remote east Nevada desert and pulls over at a scenic overlook. Tourists spill out—Americans, Europeans, Japanese—and crowd around the railing, chattering and snapping pictures. Below, a herd of wild horses lazes in the afternoon heat, switching flies and grazing. The tourists are bundled back onto the bus, which delivers them to a nearby hotel where wild horse tee shirts, coffee mugs, and other paraphernalia are on offer at a gift shop. A nearby "learning center" interprets the history of America’s wild horses for the horse-loving public.

This vision may soon be the future, if Madeleine Pickens, founder of the non-profit organization Saving America’s Mustangs (SAM), is successful in turning the 554,000-acre Spruce Ranch in southeast Elko County into America’s first mustang sanctuary.

Wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, Ms. Pickens closed the deal on the Spruce Ranch Oct. 1 for $2.575 million, according to the Elko County Public Records office. The ranch is located approximately 70 miles south of Wells, NV, on the east side of the Ruby Mountains.

Pickens is also negotiating purchase of the 28,000-acre Warm Springs Ranch, which is contiguous with the Spruce Ranch, in hopes of further expanding her holdings in the area.

The Nevada rangeland wild horse sanctuary is Pickens’ answer to the well-recognized challenges the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has faced in its management of the wild horses. Wild horses reproduce at a rate of approximately 20 percent a year, and with no significant natural predators, horse populations on public land are in constant need of culling. Yet with adoption rates having fallen off significantly since the ’90s, BLM has been forced to house excess horses in short-term corrals and long-term holding pastures at considerable expense.

Although current law requires BLM to either euthanize or sell "without limitation" excess horses they are unable to adopt out, these measures have not been employed.

Instead, over 34,500 horses are currently housed in long- and short-term holding facilities, gobbling up $29 million, or 70 percent, of the BLM’s $40.6 million annual wild horse management budget each year.

And more excess horses are on the way. According to BLM’s website, the current estimated number of wild horses and burros roaming free on public lands stands at approximately 38,400, and "exceeds by nearly 12,000 the number that the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses."

With more horses soon to be gathered off the range, BLM is desperately in need of solutions to its wild horse dilemma.

BLM Director Bob Abbey last year initiated a revamping of the wild horse and burro management plan which will focus on controlling reproduction on the range and creating public wild horse preserves in the Midwest and east. Pickens’ initiative to create a wild horse sanctuary on a privately-owned ranch is an independent proposal, but BLM is viewing it as a potentially viable addition to their revised approach to management.

Several specifics of Pickens’ plan have been made available. According to a formal proposal from SAM that has been posted on the BLM website, Pickens’ eco-sanctuary would initially open with a population of 1,000 wild horses. According to sources at SAM, that number could eventually swell to 10,000.

The proposal further specifies that BLM would pay SAM $500 dollars each year per head for upkeep and care of the horses. According to a 2008 General Accounting Office report, the average cost of keeping a horse in long-term holding was approximately $463 dollars a year. BLM sources consider Pickens’ price to be competitive.

The horse herd on Pickens’ proposed eco-sanctuary would be non-reproducing, eliminating the need to continually thin numbers.

But the fine print of Pickens’ proposal is far from being clear. According to Don Glenn, director of the BLM’s Division of Wild Horses and Burros, many questions remain concerning if and how the project could be executed.

"There’s quite a few issues, actually," explained Glenn. "This is kind of a novel concept that’s never been really tried before. There’s a lot of public land involved, and there’s some active herd management areas on this piece of public land. There’s a grazing permit that has to be dealt with somehow."

Perhaps the most complex issue is the fact that the vast majority of the Spruce Ranch consists of public land. Only 14,000 acres of the ranch are deeded property. The remaining 540,000 consist of public lands grazing permits that are designated for grazing cattle, not horses.

Many livestock producers have speculated whether opening a sanctuary on a large public-lands-based ranch would necessitate a change in the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act which specifies that wild horses are to be considered and managed "in the area[s] where presently found" in 1971. Introducing wild horses into public lands where there were no horses at that time could necessitate a legislative change that may potentially open up more public lands to horses.

The question is: How much land could potentially become horse habitat? Whereas a special exception to the law for the purpose of a sanctuary may be amenable to many producers, current legislation awaiting a vote in the senate, the ROAM Act sponsored by Sen. Byrd, D-WV, advocates a large-scale opening up of public lands for use by wild horses, and a potential reduction of cattle numbers.

According to Glenn, however, Pickens’ ranch is not likely to raise such prickly issues. Explains Glenn, "We’re pretty sure at least on the Spruce that horses were there in 1971. That’s pretty much a given."

In Glenn’s assessment, the challenge would come with the administrative gymnastics of amending the land use plan to provide for a change in the allocation of public land: from grazing cattle to grazing wild horses.

At this stage, it is not yet clear whether the horses Pickens proposes to run on her ranch would remain government property or would be adopted or otherwise acquired by SAM.

Remarked Glenn, "The way we understand it right now, and like I said, we haven’t totally got a full understanding of what she’s proposing here, but the way we understand it right now is that it would be government-owned horses."

This raises a double question of how to monitor the private management of government-owned horses on government land. As BLM is aware from its own experience, degraded range conditions are often the result of over-use from horses, and if left unaddressed, degraded range can also cause serious horse-health issues.

Glenn emphasized that however the project may take shape, both rangeland and horse health will be closely monitored by BLM.

The purchase of the Spruce Ranch has moved Pickens and her supporters substantially closer to their dream of establishing a horse sanctuary, and they are bullish on their prospects for bringing the project to fruition. According to a statement on her website, Pickens claims, "The BLM has officially agreed to support going forward with the development of the wild horse eco-sanctuary for the horses in holding." She further states in a video clip that, "We now have got the land; we’ve got the go-ahead from the BLM."

Despite a positive outlook, however, Pickens’ eco-sanctuary is not yet a sure thing. Although BLM has agreed to explore the possibility of partnering with Pickens on the project, beyond that, no official decision has been reached.

Glenn was in Nevada touring the Spruce Ranch last week. When asked about the BLM’s current level of commitment, he said, "What the BLM agreed to was to try to work with her and see if we could come to an agreement on how this could be done. We didn’t give her the go ahead to put a bunch of horses out there."

Tom Gorey, BLM senior public affairs specialist in Washington, D.C., similarly demurred from overstating BLM’s position.

"We are reviewing the proposal, but we have not signed off on it … We’re going to seriously scrutinize all components of it. It’s going to have to pass the test of viability." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent