BLM rejects Pickens horse sanctuary

Jan 28, 2011

Believe it or not, there are limits to what money can buy. To the well-worn short list of exceptions like "love" and "salvation," enters now a new addition: "wild horse sanctuary." After months of review and discussion, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its decision Friday, Jan. 21, that it is rejecting Madeleine Pickens’ proposal to create a wild horse sanctuary on two ranches she recently purchased in southern Elko County, NV.

Pickens, wife of Texas billionaire and financier T. Boone Pickens, purchased the property last October and had proposed to use it and the accompanying BLM grazing permits to create "Mustang Monument," a wild horse "eco-sanctuary" that would provide space for the overflow of wild horses that have been gathered off western ranges due to overpopulation.

Currently, BLM is managing as many as 40,600 surplus horses off range in long- and short-term holding facilities at considerable taxpayer expense, totaling approximately $37 million a year.

But although BLM is in serious need of solutions to its wild horse problem, they have decided "Mustang Monument" isn’t the answer.

In a blunt statement released last week regarding Pickens’ proposal, BLM took Pickens’ organization, Saving America’s Mustangs, to task for disseminating false information to the public about the cost of BLM’s wild horse program and the number of horses left on the range.

"BLM has been working with the Saving America’s Mustangs Foundation, founded by Madeleine Pickens, for more than two years in an attempt to place wild horses gathered from western public rangelands into a private sanctuary," read the statement. "Some of the information distributed in the foundation’s recent media campaign requires some clarification and context; other information that is being distributed is just plain false."

In particular, BLM rejected Pickens’ organization’s claim that $85 million is being annually spent to remove horses from the range. According to BLM, only $7.7 million out of a total budget of $65 million has been spent on horse gathers.

Saving America’s Mustangs Foundation has also stated that there are only 30,000 horses remaining on the range, while BLM’s most current estimate puts that number at 38,000.

Issues of false information aside, there were clearly practical shortcomings with the plan.

BLM faulted Pickens for failing to submit a "formal and detailed" proposal of her idea so that BLM could analyze the viability of the project.

"This would be required from any individual or group proposing ideas involving public funds, public lands, and wild horses and burros," BLM stated.

A detailed plan would have been particularly useful to BLM in analyzing the cost of placing horses at Pickens’ sanctuary. Pickens claimed that her proposal would save taxpayers significant expenditure on the Wild Horse and Burro Program. However, given the information they were provided, BLM found that Pickens’ sanctuary was actually more costly than current long-term off-range management.

"The foundation has indicated that it will be prepared to provide holding services on land in Nevada by next fall and that it would result in a ‘great cost savings,’ " BLM stated. "Without a written, detailed proposal, BLM cannot determine whether this is true. However, Mrs. Pickens … has suggested a stipend of $500 … per horse, per year, for the life of each animal. This would exceed BLM’s existing cost … of $475 per year. Her prospectus, as presented, does not demonstrate an obvious cost savings to the American taxpayer."

In a reply to BLM’s rejection, Pickens pointed out that the current annual cost of a horse in short-term holding is $2,500.

Though true, the comparison may not be apt. BLM is presently looking into numerous possibilities for managing the horses currently in short-term holding, including renting pasture from contractors and setting up long-term BLM refuges in the Midwest and East. It is the cost of these programs, and not short-term holding, that Pickens must compete with.

BLM also noted that significant changes in the law would be necessary for the agency to pay a private party to manage wild horses on public lands. Conversely, if Pickens acquired title to the horses, it would be necessary to authorize BLM to pay for the upkeep of privately owned horses.

Further work would have to be done to conduct an environmental analysis and a land use plan amendment to authorize transfer of title of the horses and to assess the impact of shifting allotment use from cattle to horse grazing.

"All such environmental documents require a period for public review and comment before being finalized," stated BLM.

BLM further expressed concern that Pickens’ expectations for how many horses could be maintained on Mustang Monument were wildly unrealistic, stating that "forage and water exist to support a maximum of 970 wild horses, far below the 10,000 the foundation has indicated it would like to support."

Pickens adamantly denied that she had made such a claim.

In a reply to BLM’s rejection that was posted on her organization’s website, Pickens stated that "I’m puzzled by [BLM Director Bob Abbey’s] statement to the media that my proposal seeks to place 10,000 horses on the Spruce Ranch ... In fact, our most recent proposal to BLM was for approximately 1,000 horses on the approximately over half a million acres encompassed by the Spruce. This was made clear in numerous meetings with BLM, and is explained on our website as well … It was never intended to put 30,000 to 40,000 horses, or even 10,000 horses, on the Spruce."

Yet, at this time of the writing of this article, the "Sanctuary Q&A" section of Pickens’ Saving America’s Mustangs Foundation website contains numerous references to the Spruce Ranch’s carrying capacity as being anywhere from between 9,000 to 30,000.

In one place, the foundation explains that "[The Spruce Ranch] has sufficient size to accommodate all 9,000 wild horses currently held captive in pens. It has ample forage and open space to accommodate thousands of additional animals removed from federal rangeland for years to come. It saves the taxpayers millions of dollars annually."

Elsewhere, under the heading "How many wild horses can the Saving America’s Mustangs Ranch support?" the estimates are even more optimistic, explaining that "The stocking level of horses will be phased in over time, starting with about 10,000 animals and increasing about 4,000 animals per year until the appropriate stocking rate is reached … The maximum number of horses the ranch can support is near 30,000."

BLM’s decision to pull the plug on Mustang Monument is sure to elicit a sigh of relief from Elko County ranchers, resource users, and many members of the public. Pickens’ proposal was not popular in Elko County, where the County Commission voted against the plan on Nov. 3. Commissioner Demar Dahl stated that the sanctuary set a "dangerous precedent" because many additional cattle ranches would need to be purchased in order to house the wild horse numbers Pickens envisioned. These ranches form an important part of the tax base, not to mention of the custom and culture of Elko County.

But Pickens is not easily discouraged, and has expressed her determination to continue her campaign to create a sanctuary.

"I’m going to keep working with the BLM," Pickens told the Associated Press. "It’s like your children. You just have to keep working with them until they get it right. To me, it’s sad we don’t have the leadership to fix the issue of these poor American mustangs." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent