Horse sanctuary: Proposal east of Elko worth a try

Since overbreeding of wild horses on public lands tends to lead to overgrazed range and depleted water resources – but since there’s also an outcry if those animals are sold for slaughter – the Bureau of Land Management now finds itself managing some 47,000 wild horses in short- or long-term holding facilities.

That’s more than the 38,500 wild horses estimated to still run wild on public lands. And given that just feeding and watering that stock now uses up 47 percent of the BLM’s $75.8 million annual “wild horse” budget, that’s a problem.

So the government has been inviting proposals from parties who’d like to operate private horse sanctuaries.

Because that takes both a lot of land and a lot of money, it’s not too surprising that the only such proposal to advance to the stage of environmental review, so far, is that of Madeleine Pickens, who proposes a half-million-acre sanctuary 25 miles south of Wells, in northeastern Nevada.

The wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens has bought grazing rights on a former cattle ranch known as the Spruce allotment – after the nearby mountain peak – as well as 14,000 acres of private, deeded land.

Under her proposal, the BLM would keep ownership of the horses, while Mrs. Pickens would maintain the wells, rangeland and fencing on an area of public lands about half the size of Rhode Island.

If the BLM grants final approval, the agency would provide funding to help support the horses – but at a rate not to exceed the current $475 per horse per year it spends to maintain them on holding pastures in the Midwest.

Mrs. Pickens, who hopes to turn her “Mustang Monument” into a major tourist draw, has already spent millions of dollars buying rangeland, building water troughs and planting alfalfa. Starting with 550 wild animals rounded up from the Paiute Reservation at Pyramid Lake more than a year ago, “I’m going forward with or without the government,” she vows.

J. J. Goicoechea, president of the Nevada Cattleman’s Association, says it’s important to make sure the plan doesn’t disturb the migratory patterns of mule deer and antelope, and to assure the continued access to the public lands of hunters and other recreational users.

Wells Mayor Karen Huff is less reserved in her enthusiasm, on the other hand, saying she can’t wait for wild-horse tourists to start boosting the economy of her truck-stop town of 1,500.

The long-term goal should be to get such acreage out of federal control, entirely – Nevadans could do a better job managing their own destiny if local folk didn’t have to wait on permission from Washington to decide how to dispose of 86 percent of the state’s own lands.

But there’s little doubt Mrs. Pickens has both the commitment and the resources to make her “Mustang Monument” a reality. The government should let her give it a try.

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