ELKO — After two-and-a-half hours of public comment and a presentation by Madeleine Pickens, Elko County Commissioners voted 3-1 Wednesday to oppose her wild horse sanctuary project.
The county commission meeting room was packed with about 70 people in attendance and standing room only.
“Give me a chance to open a sanctuary here,” Pickens pleaded during the meeting.
She said she’s already spent several million dollars developing a business plan when she could have left that money to her daughter.
Pickens, founder of the Saving America’s Mustangs foundation, encouraged commissioners to see if the project works.
She bought the 14,000-acre Spruce Ranch near U.S. Highway 93 last month and one adjoining ranch, and is proposing to convert them into a wild horse sanctuary called “Mustang Monument.”
The facility would include recreation components.
If the proposal is approved by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the sanctuary would be home to 1,000 mustangs initially and would be a non-breeding sanctuary.
During Wednesday’s meeting, a number of Elko County residents and ranchers expressed their opinions about Pickens’ project.
Pickens said she would have appeared before the county commission earlier, but she was looking all around the country for land for the proposed horse sanctuary.
“You have a secret here,” she said about Elko County.
Pickens flew over the Spruce Ranch Wednesday morning before the commission meeting to check out the area.
“I’m envious of the years and years of families living here and enjoying it,” she said.
She immigrated to the United States and said she was enamored with the county and couldn’t wait to arrive.
Pickens’ love of horses began after she became involved in Thoroughbred racing.
“I really, really fell in love with them,” she said.
Pickens said she never believed that horses were being slaughtered in the United States until she found out shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
She said she’d cry every night, pray and think, “What can I do for these horses?”
Pickens said she sees horses as a resource and a gift from God.
She approached the BLM and inquired if land could be converted from use for cattle to a horse sanctuary.
The sanctuary would be a pilot program and it’s possible that other ranchers would sell their land, she said.
“I still don’t understand why you don’t want to adopt the horses,” Commission Chairman Charlie Myers said to Pickens.
She said it would be irresponsible to adopt tens of thousands of horses.
Pickens said she came up with a plan for the horse sanctuary that she knows she can do well and it would be managed by the nonprofit corporation.
There are about 40,000 wild horses on the range in the United States and about half are in Nevada.
Between 11,000 and 15,000 horses are currently in government short-term holding facilities, which cost an average of $2,500 per year to the American taxpayer, she said.
The horses are “butt to butt” in the corrals, she said, but they live twice as long as they would on the range because they don’t have to deal with nature.
Long-term holding facilities are less costly, at about $500 per year for the taxpayer, which Pickens said is a “big difference.”
The federal government can’t sustain its current wild horse practices, she said.
Pickens said the corporation will receive $500 from the BLM for every horse housed at the sanctuary.
Ken Miller, Elko district manager for the BLM, said the proposal “isn’t a private process” and there would be more opportunities for public input during the permitting process.
Pickens plans for the Mustang Monument to be a tourist destination.
Many Americans go on vacations to places such as Yosemite or Disneyland, but “why not come to northern Nevada?” she said.
There are millions of Americans “who never get to see this way of life,” she said.
She described some of the ideas in her business plan for the Mustang Monument, such as having covered wagon rides, campfires, storytellers and educators, ecology activities, teaching children how to grow vegetables and making sure the facilities are handicapped accessible.
“Mustang Monument, I promise you, will make Elko County proud,” Pickens said.
“There is romance and glamour to this,” she said.
Several in the audience laughed when Pickens said that if a horse escapes, it’s like a cow and “we’ll try to bring it home.” The ranch area would be fully fenced, she said.
Pickens said she’s no stranger to the ranching way of life.
“I’m not new to this game, but I’m new to Elko,” she said.
Pickens said the Mustang Monument will create business for the county, as well as create jobs.
She said unlike the Ruby Pipeline project, the sanctuary will create long-term jobs.
Commissioner Warren Russell said the difference is that the Ruby Pipeline will provide property tax revenue to the county, whereas the horse sanctuary wouldn’t.
He said he doesn’t question Pickens’ motives for the project.
Russell said if the proposal is being sold as an idea to solve the problem of wild horse overpopulation, then he couldn’t see mathematically “how one or two sanctuaries would make a big difference.”
Russell said the BLM will decide whether to approve the project, and the only influence commissioners have is political.
Myers said he’d rather see the facility restricted to private land. Russell said commissioners may reconsider their stance if Pickens can provide detailed plans that satisfy their concerns.
Commissioner Demar Dahl said he’s worried that if cattle ranches are converted into horse sanctuaries, it will threaten the opportunities of future cattle ranchers.
Pickens said she’s not trying to change the way of life of any Elko County residents and wants to work with the county.
She said she’s not proposing any changes to the Taylor Grazing Act and is coming in as a good neighbor.
“I won’t leave a dark footprint here,” she said.
Russell said he has some economic concerns about the proposal, especially about Pickens purchasing additional water rights for the ranch.
“We’re very, very touchy with our water in Elko County,” he said.
“I would not come to Nevada looking for water,” Pickens’ husband T. Boone Pickens said. “That’s of no interest to me.”
Dahl made a motion to oppose the project. Commissioner Sheri Eklund-Brown was the only commissioner to vote against the motion. Newly elected Assemblyman John Ellison attended the meeting as a member of the audience and did not vote.
It’s not the first time a majority of the commission has opposed a horse sanctuary proposal.
Gary Weisbart, manager of the Winecup Gamble Ranch, presented a proposal in October 2009, and commissioners voted 4-1 to oppose the project.
Eklund-Brown was also the commissioner who voted against that motion.
When Eklund-Brown thanked Pickens for coming to visit “little Elko,” Pickens said in response, “It’s not little Elko anymore. You’re going to be on the map big time.”
Meghan Brown, executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, said it’s obvious Pickens is passionate about wild horses, but horses have negative impacts to public-use lands.
Robin Boies of the Boies Ranch north of Wells said everyone knows there are unintended consequences of wild horse legislation, such as horses starving to death.
“Good intentions have only created pain and suffering for the animals,” Boies said.
She said if wild horse advocates care about horses, they should have tackled existing holding facilities.
Boies said the issue at hand isn’t about how she or Pickens feels about wild horses. She said many people have become lost in their feelings and it’s hard to separate emotions from the issue.
The issue should be what’s best for the horses, resources and rural communities, Boies said.
She said the weakness she sees in Pickens’ proposal is that it’s not a long-term solution.
“I want to be clear here,” Boies said. “I don’t want starving horses in Nevada.”
Coming to the table to discuss the issues can be difficult for both sides, she said.
“No one gets all they want, but isn’t that what democracy is all about?” she said.
Boies ended her comments by saying that people in the world are going hungry every day while “we’re still fighting about wild horses.”
Jim Middagh, a rancher from Clover Valley, said his understanding is that Pickens’ project will utilize both public and private lands within the ranch boundaries.
He said limits in terms of what the land could accommodate in the past should be applied for future use.
Terry Gary of Spring Creek said there are merits to Pickens’ plan.
She said she used to live in West Wendover and some of her fondest memories with her children were driving 20 to 30 miles on dirt roads to view wild horses.
“It used to be fairly simple,” she said, but added that it’s harder to find any horses in the wild now.
Gary said Elko County can be described as a large piece of pie.
“She’s asking for a very small piece of the pie,” she said.
Gary said she’s thrilled that children could have an opportunity to tour Pickens’ facility and see the horses.
It would be wonderful to “see wild mustangs in a managed facility,” she said.