LAS VEGAS — Thirty thousand wild horses are stacked in government-supported holding facilities — more horses than are found on the open range.
The program costs more than $70 million per year, but an ambitious plan to cut costs and improve conditions for the horses has been bottled up within the Bureau of Land Management for more than three years, in part because cattle ranchers don’t like it.
Businesswoman and philanthropist Madeleine Pickens has spent years trying to coax the BLM into trying something different, because it is clear what they’ve been doing isn’t working. She’s also spent more than $13 million of her own dollars building an eco-sanctuary that would be good for the horses, good for taxpayers, and a boost for tourism in rural Nevada.
But the BLM is still dragging its feet, which has given cattle ranchers plenty of time to muddy the waters. Pickens says she’s going forward whether they like it or not.
The scenes are straight out of Zane Grey. There are bands of rambunctious wild horses, kicking up dust and sage on the same range where the first horses on earth once galloped and evolved.
The 600 or so mustangs were captured on an Indian reservation and were bound for a slaughterhouse before Madeleine Pickens saved them from a date with a dinner plate. She bought the horses before she bought the ranches to accommodate them. They have since fattened up on rich hay but are still wary and wild. They are the first of what Pickens hopes will be many mustang herds to live in freedom and protection in a vast eco-sanctuary called the Mustang Monument.
“We want to create a sanctuary for them. The idea is to offer the public something that replicates these horses in their natural setting. Well, it would never get better than this, where we are standing today. This is it,” said Jerry Reynoldson, a wild horse advocate.
Mrs. Pickens first pitched her sanctuary idea four years ago, started searching for ranch properties a year after that, and signed on the dotted line in 2011. She paid nearly $6 million for two adjacent ranches in Elko County, about 25 miles south of Wells. She has nearly 20,000 deeded acres with more than 600,000 acres of leasable public land attached. Even by Nevada standards, it’s an enormous empire, as far as the eye can see.
“And it blows you away to think there is not room for a lot of horses out there,” Reynoldson said.
But that is exactly what wild horse opponents in the BLM and Nevada’s ranching industry allege. They said the land is not big enough for both mustangs and cows. The Elko County Commission, dominated by ranchers, voted to oppose the eco-sanctuary. If Pickens wanted to start a colony of vampires, the rumors whispered about her by ranchers could hardly be more sensational, or less factual.
“It’s wild horses. The key word is wild horses,” former Elko County Commissioner Mike Nannini said. As a businessman and longtime commissioner, he says mustangs have always been a hot button, knee jerk issue for ranchers. The scuttlebutt in Elko is that Pickens’ ultimate plan is to siphon their groundwater and ship it to Texas, or that her husband T. Boone Pickens wants to blanket the range with windmill farms, or that Mrs. Pickens will become filthy rich by taking in more horses, or that more do-gooders will follow.
“And pretty soon they will buy up all the ranches and they will charge the federal government to take care of them and they will let them run wild,” said Nannini.
He has studied the wild horse problem for decades and says there is little or no chance Pickens could do any of these things even if she wanted to because the BLM would retain control of the public acres. He says Pickens’ performance, so far, has been nothing but positive. She’s spent millions putting in huge water pivots that will mean abundant forage for the horses and other animals, refurbished long-neglected ranch houses, and is replenishing lands decimated by decades of overgrazing — not by mustangs — by cattle ranches that never operated in the black.
“Since I was a child, this place has always been a losing proposition and people have gone broke one by one,” Nannini said.
During dinner in one of Pickens’ remodeled ranch houses, rural residents say they think the sanctuary would be a major attraction and a shot in the economic arm.
“I want to do what’s best for the citizens of Wells and in my mind, it’s growth, economic development, tourism. I don’t see why that hurts the citizens of Wells,” Wells Mayor Kenny Huber said.
“It is definitely having an impact on city funds and likewise having the same impact on merchant funds out there,” Wells City Manager Jolene Suggs said.
“You take the hatred of horses aside, there is no good reason why anybody should be opposed to this here or anywhere else,” said Clay Nannini, an Elko realtor.
“That’s the crux. It’s different. It’s a threat. That’s the term,” Suggs said.
The real irony is that Elko County is a bastion of property rights. They’ve fought for years to uphold the fundamental principal that a landowner can do what he wants with his own property. They simply don’t think it applies to Mrs. Pickens.
Pickens says what she does on her land is her business, so long as it does not affect her neighbors. She will continue making her case to those who will listen but does not expect to change the minds of diehard opponents.
“These horses belong here. The people of Nevada love them. So, a few people don’t enjoy them. It’s not really their decision,” Pickens said.
So large is the combined acreage acquired by Madeleine Pickens for her eco-sanctuary that it would take the better part of an entire day to drive it. Pickens already has 600 mustangs on the property, not only because she wanted to rescue them from slaughter, but so they could be a demonstration of what could be.
Her plan for a Mustang Monument would invite the world to see wild horses in their natural state, an eco-tourist attraction and also a learning center. Pickens has asked the BLM for permission to take captured horses out of government facilities, most of them on private lands in the Midwest where the public never sees them, and set them loose in their natural environment — the Great Basin. Cattle ranchers are horrified by the prospect, but others in rural Nevada think it makes sense.
“I think it’s a start to resolving the wild horse issue. Get them in here. We are paying for them to go to the Midwest and we are paying millions of dollars for them to get into a corral that is about the size of that over there and they are just jamming them in there,” Nannini said.
But to do it, Pickens needs the BLM to release horses from long-term holding and to designate that the public range can be used for horses, not cattle. After three years of asking, Pickens still does not have BLM’s approval.
BLM has vowed to change the focus of its wild horse program but continues the same pattern of rounding them up, stashing them away, and feeding them for the rest of their lives.
Records obtained by the I-Team show that a single contractor, Dave Cattour, has been paid tens of millions of dollars to round up horses from public land. In 2011, BLM again paid huge sums for roundups in Nevada, not only to Cattour but to Utah’s Sun J, a company founded by former BLM employees. There are already plans for more expensive roundups this year.
“Yes, there are people in the BLM Department of Interior that think — they have thought for a long time — that long-term holding is the silver bullet. They just gather horses and take them somewhere to hold them and they are out of sight and out of mind,” Reynoldson said.
Former U.S. Senate aide Jerry Reynoldson knows there are good people within BLM who want to fix the program but says many in leadership positions not only sympathize with the cattle ranchers, they are cattle ranchers.
“The key people are all ranchers, with their own biases,” he said.
Rural realtor Clay Nannini handled the purchase of the Pickens ranches and stayed on to help with the sanctuary. He says the BLM was formed from pieces of the National Grazing Association.
“Is there a strong tie between ranchers and the BLM? Yeah, and that’s who the BLM was formed to serve,” Nannini said.
Anti-mustang attitudes within BLM have surfaced not only in the continued roundups, but in preventing any cooperation with the Pickens plan. Just as rural cattlemen have spread rumors about what Pickens wants to do, BLM’s national office has issued news releases claiming her plan will cost more per horse.
At present, it costs $5.75 per day to care for a mustang held in short-term holding, and $1.25 per day for long-term holding. Pickens has said she would take horses from short-term holding but accept the lowest amount. The BLM has acknowledged it would save $1.6 million for every 1,000 horses it turns over.
“That kind of stuff is just mischief because we have met with everyone at every level and made it clear she was willing to take what the lowest end payment was,” Reynoldson said.
It’s no accident that BLM put out bad information, he adds. If the worst happens and BLM does not okay the Pickens’ plan, Pickens will go on without them. The only difference will be the taxpayers won’t benefit.
“We’ve got 500 or some odd horses. She’s purchased them and guests love to see them so she’s not going away,” Nannini said.
“Madeleine is totally committed to seeing horses come back on these lands and she has spent her money and put her money where her mouth is. She said the other day, she will see it through, and she will,” Reynoldson said.
The BLM recently issued a call for any landowners who want to enter a partnership with BLM to put mustangs on their land. The only one to respond has been Madeleine Pickens, who says she keeps jumping through hoops and filling out paperwork, but three years into this, BLM still will not give her plan a thumbs up or thumbs down.
The BLM declined to comment about Pickens’ plan.