Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams
I-Team: Anti-Wild Horse Bill Passes Nevada Senate Committee
LAS VEGAS -- With all the financial trouble Nevada is in, you might think state lawmakers would welcome a project that will bring millions of dollars to the state and attract tourists from around the world.
But a panel in the Nevada State Senate has turned thumbs down to a planned wild horse sanctuary without even hearing from the investors who are backing it.
Senate Joint Resolution 5, which was rubber stamped by the Senate Natural Resources Committee, has no power to do anything about wild horses, as the state has no say over what happens on federal, Bureau of Land Management controlled land.
But the resolution could be a huge problem for a proposed horse sanctuary that is already creating jobs and economic benefits. If the bill moves forward, it would tell the BLM and the world that Nevada likes the wild horse situation just as it is.
In 2008, the I-Team tagged along as philanthropist Madeleine Pickens began her search for ranch property in northern Nevada, the potential site for a sprawling sanctuary for wild mustangs.
The idea would be to take horses that have already been gathered and are warehoused in BLM holding facilities in the Midwest, off limits to the public, and allow them to roam free in their natural environment in a large fenced facility. Pickens planned to create a learning center that would also be a major tourist attraction for Elko County.
Since that first scouting trip, Pickens put her money where her mouth is. She ponied up $6 million to purchase two ranches and is spending plenty to build her dream project, to the benefit of towns like Wells, Nevada, which is still recovering from a terrible earthquake
"She spent $100,000 last month in 30 days alone in labor and materials in Elko County in the City of Wells. So it's already happening. It's real. The investment is already there," said wild horse advocate Jerry Reynoldson.
Reynoldson spent more than two years working to get BLM approval for the Pickens plan. The Bureau admitted from the start that this approach would be far more cost effective than feeding horses in government pens for the rest of their lives and would save taxpayers tens of millions.
In February, BLM Director Bob Abbey admitted that the approach of rounding up then warehousing mustangs simply isn't working. BLM just announced that it is actively seeking proposals to partner with private entities, just like Pickens' plan. That's why the timing of Senate Joint Resolution 5 could not be worse. It expresses opposition to any wild horse preserve on public land in Nevada.
"For the Nevada Legislature to say we're not going to let you build a sanctuary or go on the record against it is simply saying we want more of the same, we want the status quo, and for ranchers, that's what they want, just gather them and get them out of here," said Reynoldson.
The resolution was approved by the Senate Natural Resources Committee, largely because it was backed by the longest serving member, Senator Dean Rhoads of Elko. Rhoads, a lifelong cattle rancher, leases tens of thousands of acres of public land for his cows.The hearing took all of 10 minutes.
Senators disregarded hundreds of emails sent by horse advocates and heard no testimony at all about the Pickens plan or its economic benefits. Rhoads is now trying to get the assembly to follow his lead.
Pickens and her allies hope lawmakers get an earful from the public about economic benefits.
"Nevada needs tourism. You can't stop tourism from coming to northern Nevada. Get over it guys," said Pickens.
"This joint resolution is bad because it will stop progress on an issue everyone agrees has gone nowhere for years," said Reynoldson.
Reynoldson says he has been speaking with lawmakers in the assembly to make sure that if the bill gets a hearing, proponents of the sanctuary at least get to tell their side of it.
SJR 5 also contains what amounts to an outright falsehood -- the statement that mustangs are an invasive species and don't belong here. Scientists have established beyond any doubt that the very first horses were born right here, that they evolved for millions of years in the Great Basin, were wiped out then got reintroduced. But no one bothered to point it out before the committee voted.
Contact Senator Mark Manendo, the chairman of Senate Natural Resources Committee, to voice your opinion. He can be reached at (775) 684-6503 or by email. You can also contact Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, the chairperson of the Natural Resources Committee, at (775) 684-8597 or by email.
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