By Dylan Woolf Harris, Elko Daily Free Press
ELKO — Facing a horse holding predicament, the Bureau of Land Management will soon find itself with an abundance of animals running on allotted rangeland and long-term holding facilities crammed to capacity.
The BLM manages wild horses and burros roaming the West by rounding up excess horses in overpopulated areas. Gathered animals are housed in pens until they are adopted. Horses deemed unadoptable are sent to long-term holding on ranches found mostly in the Midwest.
But public interest in adopting horses has waned and the agency is nearing capacity on long-term space. When that happens, the BLM won’t be able to gather horses, and both the animals and the environment will suffer.
Noting the problem, Tom Gorey, National BLM spokesman, said a quick fix doesn’t exist.
Mounting scrutiny from opposite ends of the horse-politics spectrum makes the BLM’s potential decision more precarious, but the sides are conjoined in opinion that current practice needs to change.
The agency doesn’t necessarily disagree. Local BLM officials recently commented that finding a solution would require outside-the-box ideas. One in the works: an eco-sanctuary.
An eco-sanctuary in Elko County has been in the planning stages for at least five years, according to Saving America’s Mustangs founder Madeleine Pickens. The proposed eco-sanctuary is composed of about 17,000 acres of private land and more than 500,000 acres of public land in southeast Elko County.
In the introduction to the BLM’s final scoping report for the project, it acknowledged current practices of “wild horse gathering, holding, and adoptions is not working,” and noted the need for innovative solutions.
For her part, Pickens said, she’ll provide a place for wild horses to roam and bypass languishing in short-term holding pens awaiting adoption, which for many will never come.
The BLM’s Elko District is developing an environmental impact statement with a tentative completion date of September. Comments will be collected with June 2014 as a target date for the final EIS.
For now, all Pickens can do is wait. In the meantime, she has 600 horses on private land, which prior to her purchase were doomed for slaughter, she said. And her concern for horses continues to linger.
“They’re in a position where they want to change (management practices) but change comes with a lot of resistance and they have to deal with it. They seem to struggle with old ideas, even if they want to change them.
“Changing anything in life is not easy,” she added. “You have to do it because it’s the right thing to do and the kind thing to do.”
Unique to Pickens’ sanctuary is an educational component that, she hopes, will reinstill awe regarding wild horses.
“We’re going to create guided tours that are educational. It will be an interesting vacation area. We can learn about our history and share it with the public,” Pickens said.
In her travels, Pickens has met many international people who claim a fascination with the American West. She hopes the eco-sanctuary will draw like-minded travelers as well as locals.
One public comment included in the final scoping proposal offered possible activities and amenities available to attract tourism that ranged from the equine-related (trail rides, treat-feeding stations), the educational (art, lasso classes), the luxurious (indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, massage center), and the everything in-between (mechanical bull-riding, wedding chapel, boot shop).
But if that sounds like it’s got enough to satisfy everybody, plenty of the public comments gathered by the BLM for the project protested the eco-sanctuary’s cost, delineated its negative effect on public lands, and questioned its efficacy.
Pickens’ eco-sanctuary doesn’t have full backing among horse advocates, either.
“The eco-sanctuary idea ... is not a departure from the BLM’s unsustainable roundup/remove and stockpile approach,” Suzanne Roy, American Wild Horse Preservation campaign director, wrote in an email. “In fact, it’s just long-term holding with a better name.”
A preferable situation, in Roy’s estimation, would be to keep horses in the wild and control population with selective fertilization.
Neda Demayo, founder of Return To Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary, agreed that the answer to wild horse management issues can be found in treatment.
“We’ve been pioneering a model program in alternative management,” she said. Her sanctuary controls a horse population, now at about 400, with non-hormonal fertility treatment.
“The tragedy is that there are solutions,” she said. “... It’s our tax dollars and our public lands. There are alternatives out there, but it would take a dedicated effort.”