BLM extends deadline for eco-sanctuary proposals

May 20, 2011

For those who had hoped to submit a wild horse eco-sanctuary plan to the government, but ran out of time: do not despair. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced May 12 that it is giving applicants a few more weeks to put the finishing touches on their proposals for wild horse management facilities that also cater to tourists and horse enthusiasts. Proposals for sanctuaries on private and non-BLM land has been extended from May 14 to June 7, while proposals for sanctuaries on a combination of private and BLM land have been extended from May 24 to June 21.

The solicitation for sanctuary proposals is part of BLM’s newly revised vision of wild horse and burro management, which seeks to remedy the problem of growing horse populations while simultaneously quelling the concerns of wild horse activists, many of whom object to the gathering of horses.

The agency has long struggled to address expanding horse populations—which double about every four years—by removing excess horses from the range and offering them for adoption. However, as adoption numbers plummeted over the past decade, it has become necessary to place unadopted horses in long- and short-term holding facilities at considerable taxpayer expense. Currently, the BLM estimates that 41,200 wild horses and burros are being maintained by taxpayer dollars in corrals and pastures, while 38,400 roam free on BLM rangeland. Although horses in holding now outnumber horses roaming on the range, the BLM has made clear that the number of horses on the range must be further reduced by about 10,000 horses—approximately 25 percent—to 26,600, in order to achieve the Appropriate Management Level (AML) at which horses will not damage rangeland health.

The BLM is charged by law to maintain horse populations at AML for the benefit of the range, to maintain a balance with other multiple uses such as grazing and wildlife, and for the welfare of the horses themselves.

But where will the BLM put all these surplus horses? In the past, the BLM has contracted with private landowners, primarily in Oklahoma and Kansas, to graze the wild horses on abundant Midwestern grasslands. But activists who have objected to the arrangement claim the solution is too expensive, places horses out of sight of the public, and removes the horses from their home range, primarily the semi-arid regions of the Great Basin.

The eco-sanctuary concept, widely associated with Madeleine Pickens’ highly publicized "Mustang Monument" proposal, has been embraced by the BLM as one possible avenue to answer activists’ concerns and increase space for excess horses. For example, Pickens’ eco-sanctuary plan involved maintaining unadopted horses on two adjoining ranches she purchased last year in Nevada’s Elko County, as well as on the public lands grazing permits attached to them. The entire area, both public and private, of the combined ranches is almost 580,000 acres.

According to Pickens’ Saving America’s Mustangs website, the Mustang Monument eco-sanctuary would feature electronic classrooms, guided hiking trips, covered wagon tours, camping in teepees and cabins, as well as campfires and storytelling. Other recreation opportunities would include creative writing, photography, and ecology workshops, as well as an organic farm to grow organic fruits and vegetables for guests and the animals.

Pickens estimates that her preserve will attract over a million visitors to northern Nevada annually.

Yet reception of Pickens’ proposal has been mixed, at best. Last November, Elko County commissioners voted against Pickens’ proposal on the grounds that it would set a precedent for transforming the county’s historic cattle ranches, and their attached public lands grazing permits, into horse havens.

By contrast, reception in the town of Wells, NV, located 25 miles from the proposed sanctuary, has been more positive. Matt Holford, president of the Wells Chamber of Commerce, explained that the sanctuary could bring in revenue to the local economy, benefiting truck stops, restaurants, and hotels.

"When you look at tourists and tourist dollars, wild horses and a horse sanctuary … would probably have a great value as far as tourism," said Holford. "We welcome all kinds of different projects. Our town’s quite diverse. We have churches and whorehouses and ranchers and restaurants. … It’s a big mosaic."

Nevertheless, in January, the BLM rejected the plan for Mustang Monument citing Pickens’ lack of a "formal and detailed proposal" and the expense of the project. Pickens’ plan proposed charging the government $500 per horse per year on Mustang Monument. According to an official BLM document, this "would exceed the BLM’s existing ‘cost per animal in long-term holding’ of $475 per year. [Pickens’] prospectus, as presented, does not demonstrate an obvious cost savings to the American taxpayer."

However, the BLM left Pickens the option to revise and resubmit her plan. She has since done so, and is rumored to have dropped her asking price to match the competition. But the agency also opened up the door to the public to submit their own eco-sanctuary proposals, generating a cascade of interest across the country, and a significant amount of new competition for Pickens. According to Karla Bird, Acting Division Chief of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, the deadline was extended in order to accommodate a large number of applicants who were struggling to finalize their proposals.

The BLM is welcoming all manner of eco-sanctuary proposals from anywhere across the United States.

"What we’re looking for are people that have experience working with horses or livestock. We want them to have a proposal that’s technically feasible that would provide a healthy, open pasture situation for the horses," explained Bird.

"The difference between our long-term pastures that we have under contract now is that the eco-sanctuaries allow for public visitation," Bird continued. "That’s the biggest difference between our current long-term pastures and the eco-sanctuaries."

Other possible components of an eco-sanctuary might be a training or an adoption facility.

Aside from the basic criteria of price and touristic value, however, the BLM is keeping an open mind about what and where a wild horse eco-sanctuary would be. This means that Mustang Monument is no longer the only horse in this race. Others will be vying for government contracts and only time will tell who comes out a winner and who was an "also ran."

Said Bird, "Everybody’s proposal stands on its own merits, so if somebody comes in with a lower cost for a technically feasible eco-sanctuary, they’re likely going to be the ones who are selected."

Never one to take a back seat, Pickens has been stepping up her game. Her nonprofit organization, Saving America’s Mustangs, boasts a revamped website complete with a page introducing a star-studded board of advisors, which includes media mogul Ted Turner, country music bad-boy Toby Keith, and Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Pickens has also turned heads by purchasing billboard space around Elko and Wells announcing that the Mustang Monument wild horse eco-preserve is "coming soon."

Bird was circumspect about the announcement, mentioning that although Pickens was free to use her private land as she liked, "[t]here have been no commitments made by BLM. We’re looking at everybody who’s applied, and their proposals will be judged on their own merits." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent