Elko County commissioners vote No on Pickens horse sanctuary

Nov 12, 2010

Moving to a new neighborhood can present all kinds of challenges. Especially when you plan not just to move in, but to spruce the place up a bit, as well. If you hope to transform your new neighborhood with big changes, big money, and perhaps 1 million annual visitors, be prepared for some resistance. Sure, there are always people who will welcome glamour and recognition. But some neighborhoods are plenty content without the improvements and schemes of outsiders, thank you very much.

This was the message sent to Madeleine Pickens by the Elko County commissioners, who voted 3-1 against Pickens’ proposed wild horse “eco-sanctuary” which she hopes to build 70 miles south of Wells, NV. The sanctuary, which Pickens calls the Mustang Monument, would be located on the 14,000-acre Spruce Ranch, which Pickens recently acquired, and the adjoining Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Spruce Mountain grazing allotment.

Pickens is promoting her sanctuary as a solution to the ongoing problem of managing the wild horses. Wild horses reproduce at a rate of 20 percent a year, and with no natural predators, they can quickly overpopulate an area.

Nevada is home to onehalf of America’s 38,400 freeroaming wild horses, and Elko County commissioners are acutely aware of the problem, which affects ranching and wildlife in the county. Nevertheless, they are not keen to jump on Pickens’ band wagon.

Of the Elko County commissioners, Demar Dahl, Charlie Myers, and Warren Russell voted against the proposal. Sheri Eklund- Brown voted in favor. John Ellison, previously a commissioner but recently elected to the State Assembly, did not vote, although he previously voted against a similar sanctuary proposal for the Winecup-Gamble ranch. Eklund-Brown was the sole voter in favor of the Winecup-Gamble sanctuary. The proposal was eventually scrapped.

Dahl emphasized that Elko prides itself on welcoming newcomers to the area.

Earlier this year, he told Pickens, “You come out [here] and run cows, and we’ll be the best neighbors you ever had.”

Yet at the meeting on Nov. 3, the commissioners put Pickens on notice that the county will not be receiving her eco-sanctuary proposal with open arms.

“Don’t come out trying to change our cow ranches into horse refuges,” Dahl said. He suggested that Pickens, who is the wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, should pursue her dream elsewhere.

The concerns about the proposed horse sanctuary run the gamut from the technical nuts and bolts of whether it is feasible to run large numbers of wild horses on the ranch to more subjective worries about whether Pickens’ vision for a major tourist destination in remote northern Nevada is woefully out of touch with the local culture and wishes of longtime residents.

The Spruce Ranch consists of 14,000 deeded acres, with approximately 540,000 acres available as a public land grazing allotment. Pickens proposes to populate the sanctuary with an initial turnout of 1,000 horses, but to increase numbers on the combined public and private holdings as the project proves itself.

Ultimately, Pickens envisions the ranch being able to house the majority of the 37,800 horses currently in holding facilities.

“The total population of horses on the ranch would be determined by its carrying capacity (approximately 20,000 to 30,000 head),” explains Pickens’ website.

The horse population on the sanctuary would be managed as a non-reproductive herd.

Ken Miller, Elko BLM district manager, is keeping an open mind about the project, but is skeptical whether Pickens’ numbers add up. He emphasizes that BLM has clear parameters for range health, horse health, and wildlife on public lands that must be worked within. Given the constraints, Pickens’ numbers look unrealistic.

“I think you and I both know we’re not going to put 30,000 horses in any part of Nevada and maintain healthy rangelands,” says Miller.

Miller is willing to entertain the possibility that there might be scope for using the private section of the ranch as a more concentrated, long-term holding-type facility, with some discretionary turn-outs on public land.

Matters are further com plicated by the fact that the Spruce Mountain allotment overlaps with part of the Antelope Complex, a cluster of HMAs (horse management areas) in eastern Nevada. The HMA that is partially on the Spruce Mountain allotment is currently over AML (appropriate management limit). Although Miller indicated that a gather is planned for early ’11, there remains the fact that the Spruce Mountain allotment already comes with a population of wild horses on it. How many more Pickens’ could feasibly add to that is questionable.

Miller maintains that BLM is keeping an open mind and is working with Pickens, but he emphasizes that the process has only just been initiated.

The entire process of approving Pickens’ plan would require extensive public input, National Environmental Policy Act analysis, and developing an environmental impact statement.

At this point, says Miller, there’s really no telling how things may develop.

County Commissioner Dahl finds little comfort in the BLM’s circumspect approach. He is concerned that the actual carrying capacity of the Spruce Ranch is far below Pickens’ estimation, and reads in the tea leaves an increasing need for more ranches, and more land, to accommodate the numbers of horses Pickens wants to provide for.

“How many ranches are you going to have to buy in order to make any difference? We just don’t want to see our cattle ranches turned into wild horse refuges.”

An additional fly in the ointment is whether the proposed refuge would conflict with public lands access. According to Dahl, at the meeting with county commissioners, Pickens indicated that she envisions motorized vehicles on most of the sanctuary being prohibited, with the public either hiking in or being conveyed in covered wagons operated by the sanctuary. However, vehicle access is permitted on the Spruce Mountain allotment, which has prime hunting areas and is also used by off roaders.

The suggestion of restricted vehicle access has led some to speculate whether Pickens has plans to propose the sanctuary as a wilderness or monument.

The county’s Natural Resources Management Advisory Commission is devisory Commission is developing a resolution expressing concern about the impact the wild horse sanctuary could have on other public lands users.

Not everyone is against Pickens’ sanctuary, and several voices spoke out in favor of the plan at the meeting. Further, the County Commission does not have the power to block the plan, which will ultimately either be approved or scrapped by BLM. But their political influence is substantial.

Meantime, Pickens is rolling ahead despite the vote. On her website, she rallied her supporters to take heart after the disappointing vote:

“The commissioners’ approval is not a prerequisite for the success of the sanctuary; of course their approval would have been welcomed. I was elated by the support of many residents of Elko, Wells and the surrounding communities who realize the myriad of benefits it will bring to their area.

“It is important that they, and all other supporters, rest assured that my resolve has not deteriorated.

The momentum still exists as we move forward on the sanctuary working hand in hand with the BLM.”

Despite Pickens’ tremendous energy and resolve, it is clear that the majority of people in Elko County remain unpersuaded, and perhaps even insulted, by her attempts to improve their neighborhood. Extolling the beautiful open spaces and wild horses of Nevada to the people of Elko County has not advanced her argument.

“She told us a number of times we just didn’t realize what we have here in Elko County,” said Dahl.

“We don’t need somebody coming from Texas or wherever …and making us aware of what we have. We know what we have here. …I think it’s arrogant and naive, at the same time. I just don’t have very much respect for that kind of an attitude.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent