Federal agency says Madeleine Pickens idea for wild horse refuge flawed as proposed
By SANDRA CHEREB Associated Press Writer
4:55 PM CST, March 2, 2009
RENO, Nev. (AP) — An offer from the wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens to establish a sanctuary for 30,000 wild horses is "problematic" and not viable as proposed, a federal land management official said Monday.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is willing to continue talks with Madeleine Pickens, said Ron Wenker, the agency's state director for Nevada.
"We tried to thank her politely" and leave the door open, he told the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.
Pickens last fall proposed establishing a wild horse sanctuary after the BLM said it was considering euthanasia as a way to stem escalating costs of keeping animals gathered from the open range in long-term holding facilities.
She said she was looking for about 1 million acres, or 1,500 square miles, to establish the refuge.
About 33,000 wild horses roam in 10 Western states, about half in Nevada. The horses and burros are managed by the BLM and protected under a 1971 law enacted by Congress.
The agency, which set a target "appropriate management level" of 27,000 horses in the wild to protect the herd, the range and other foraging animals, rounds up excess horses and offers them for adoption. Those that are too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities, where they can live for decades.
There are now about as many animals in long-term care as remain in the wild.
Wenker, who recently served two months as acting national BLM director, said there are two problems with Pickens' offer.
One is the $500 per head, per year — or $15 million annually for 30,000 horses — she was asking to take the animals now in long-term holding facilities off the government's hands.
Pickens last week told The Associated Press the stipend would used to finance a nonprofit foundation that would care for the animals.
"You've got to get some kind of break from the government," she said. "We need help from them." She estimated her plan would save the government as much as $700 million in costs otherwise spent for long-term holding by 2020.
BLM officials project holding costs in 2009 at $10.3 million for horses in long-term care and $22.6 million for those in short-term facilities, where they are readied and made available for adoption.
The government pays ranchers about $475 per animal, per year, to provide long-term care for federally owned horses on private land. Most of those facilities are in the Midwest, where natural forage is more plentiful than in the arid West.
Pickens could apply for a similar contract, Wenker said, if her sanctuary was confined to private property.
The other problem with Pickens' proposal, Wenker said, involves use of public lands.
He said government land Pickens has considered for the sanctuary is ineligible because federal law restricts horses to areas where they existed when the Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was enacted nearly four decades ago.
"Because the BLM grazing allotments under consideration by your foundation did not have wild horse herds in 1971, wild horses cannot now be placed there," Wenker wrote to Pickens in a Feb. 20 letter obtained by the AP.
"At this point, two options seem most plausible," Wenker wrote. "The BLM could contract with your foundation to care for wild horses strictly on private land. Alternatively, your foundation could own and care for the horses without compensation from the BLM, as you first proposed."
The BLM has said it would not implement killing healthy wild horses this fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 while it seeks other alternatives to controlling populations.