“Is that what we want to do, take viable cattle ranches important to the economy and switch it so now they’re horse sanctuaries and the taxpayers support the horses there?” said DeMar Dahl, the commission’s chairman of public lands.
Madeleine Pickens, wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, and her nonprofit group Saving America’s Mustangs want to establish the eco-sanctuary across nearly 100 square miles east of Elko and south of U.S. Interstate 80 — from the Ruby Mountains to near the Utah line.
Pickens bought two ranches last year that cover about 18,000 acres south of Wells, but along with the titles come rights to a grazing allotment across another 550,000 acres of federal land that includes three existing Horse Management Areas designated by the BLM.
BLM officials announced on Thursday they will begin a two-year study to analyze the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of the plan.
Dahl said backers of the project “have a big hurdle to cross” to prove that the concentration of as many as 900 horses won’t cause harm to public rangeland in violation of U.S. environmental regulations.
Ranchers manage cattle and the range by putting cattle in one area for a time and then moving them to another so the range can heal, but with horses, “they just stay there year-round,” he told the Elko Daily Free Press.
Pickens disagreed. She said the proposed eco-sanctuary won’t affect cattle ranchers “one bit,” and she hopes “we can all be friends.”
Under the proposal, Saving America’s Mustangs would improve and maintain fencing and water wells and oversee management of the horses, which would remain under federal ownership. The group also would also provide Western history and wild horse-related education and promote ecotourism.
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said the agency’s decision to formally review the proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act is only the first step in the approval process.
“It’s not a done deal,” Gorey said. He said the agency hasn’t decided whether to conduct an environmental assessment or the more extensive environmental impact statement.
“It’s a major proposal. This more than likely will be an environmental impact statement,” he said.