by George Knapp the “Knappster” on Las Vegas City Lights
BlM Forced to Consider Pickens’ Wild Horse Plan?Officially, anyway, the news that the BLM is finally willing to consider a public-private partnership with wild horse advocate Madeleine Pickens is a good thing. After all — as reported in this space many times — the federal wild horse and burro program is a dismal failure. So any proposal that might reinvigorate the program, do a better job of caring for the mustangs and the public range, while also saving millions of taxpayer dollars, is a step in the right direction, even if it is a small step. In that sense, the BLM deserves a round of applause.
Of course, the real story is much different from what has been described in various congratulatory news releases, and not nearly as encouraging. My guess is that BLM did not want to take this step. Not now, not ever.
Mrs. Pickens first approached BLM more than four years ago about creating a sprawling eco-sanctuary for wild horses. The bureau has listened, somewhat politely; has repeatedly assured Pickens that it sounds like a good idea; has admitted the plan would save a huge amount of money over the long term and would probably create a tourist attraction that would benefit Elko County. Despite those assurances and repeated face-to-face expressions of support, BLM has been unwilling to give Pickens a thumbs up or down on her proposal.
Even after she plunked down more than $6 million to buy two huge ranches near Wells, BLM still would not give her an answer, except when it raised new and ever more complicated hoops for her to jump through.
Pickens has not been shy about criticizing the wild horse program, and she has accused the bureau of being way too cozy with the cattle ranchers it supposedly oversees. As she has pointed out, the BLM not only runs interference for the cattle industry, it is the cattle industry, since many senior BLM managers in the horse program either raise cattle or come from a cattle-ranching background. Cattle ranchers hate the wild horses and the wild horse program. BLM — especially in Nevada, where more than half of all mustangs live — has danced to the cattlemen’s tune, rounding up horses for causing damage to the range that almost certainly was caused by huge herds of cattle, using any pretext to clear horses off of land set aside by law for their preservation. (In just the past two years, more than a million acres in Nevada that was designated by law as habitat for wild horses has been wiped clean of all mustangs, though privately owned cattle were allowed to remain.)
I get the feeling BLM agreed to look into a possible partnership with Pickens through gritted teeth and a forced smile. The news release it issued is — how shall I put this — a bit understated in its description of the proposal. A few months ago, BLM gushed about a public-private partnership in Wyoming, a little 4,000-acre spread that will accept perhaps 250 wild horses if it is approved (compared to Pickens’ spread of 550,000 acres, capable of supporting thousands of mustangs). BLM called the Wyoming plan “a milestone” in the wild horse program, even though it wouldn’t make a dent in the backlog of 40,000 mustangs warehoused in government facilities.
No such words were used to describe the Pickens plan, although it would create an eco-sanctuary with attractions and educational benefits not found in the Wyoming mini-plan. In fact, BLM made a point of saying that there is no deal with Pickens, and that everything is contingent on a two-year environmental study, plus ample opportunity for public comment (meaning ranchers).
So why did BLM finally and reluctantly agree to even study the Pickens plan?
I think Sen. Harry Reid probably ordered them to come to the table. Reid has met with Pickens and her colleague, Jerry Reynoldson (a former aide to Reid), many times and thinks the idea has considerable merit. But he has not thrown his weight around, until recently.
It came to a head some weeks ago, when Reid accompanied Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a Las Vegas media event to tout tourism promotion in Nevada. Salazar was asked about the Pickens plan as a tourism generator, and his terse answer suggested he either didn’t know much about it or didn’t like it. Sources tell Knappster that once Reid returned to Washington, he decided that Pickens had waited for an answer long enough. I suspect that calls were made to the BLM’s Bob Abbey (who was appointed with Reid’s backing) to find out what the hangup might be. A week later, BLM issued its release.
Elko cattlemen are already squealing about how terrible this will be, about what a mistake it is to turn over this wonderful public range to horses. One opponent of the Pickens plan said it will cost taxpayers because it removes a profitable cattle ranch from the tax rolls.
This is what we in the news biz refer to as “total bullshit.”
The ranches Pickens bought have never been profitable. That’s why they were empty. The range up there does not easily support huge herds of hungry bovines. Much of the range has been brutally overgrazed, eaten down to the dirt, not by mustangs but by cattle. Pickens has already invested millions into gigantic pivots that will grow enough alfalfa to feed the 900 or so mustangs she hopes to receive, to go along with the 600 rescued mustangs living there now. She can afford to spend this kind of money on producing feed, though a rancher worried about his bottom line cannot. That’s why putting mustangs on range once designated for cattle doesn’t hurt cattlemen or anyone else one little bit.
Why BLM can approve the Wyoming plan in less than six months but needs two years to study Pickens’ property is beyond me — but I suspect that a nice, long study will give them time to find a reason to reject the proposal. That’s why proponents of her plan are publicly pleased but privately worried.
The BLM deserves credit for taking this step, even if it was forced to do so. Now let’s see what happens.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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