Madeleine Pickens
Donna McWilliam  /  AP
File - In this Sept. 30, 2009 file photo Madeleine Pickens, is shown during a news conference held at Mustang Plaza on the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas. The federal Bureau of Land Management is rejecting a proposal from wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, to create a horse sanctuary for wild horses the agency is removing from public range. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam, File)
updated 1/22/2011 3:50:49 PM ET 2011-01-22T20:50:49

Animal rights activists are lashing out at plans to remove about 2,000 wild horses from the range near two northeastern Nevada ranches that the wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens purchased to serve as a mustang sanctuary.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management planned to begin rounding up the horses Sunday near philanthropist Madeleine Pickens' ranches, which are in the 1.3 million-acre Antelope Complex near the Utah line, roughly 70 miles southeast of Elko.

Pickens' Saving America's Mustangs, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other groups urged the BLM to postpone the roundup, saying it makes more sense financially to leave the animals on the range in Pickens' sanctuary instead of shipping them to the Midwest.

"Why disturb them and move them to another state?" Pickens asked. "It's a slap in the face to every taxpayer in this country. I don't think the BLM has come to grip with the fact that America is out of money."

The BLM offers horses gathered from the range for adoption to the public. Those too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities in the Midwest, where they can live for decades.

Spokesman Tom Gorey in Washington, D.C., said Pickens' plan to send those horses to her sanctuary is not a practical alternative at this time, and the agency was waiting for more details from her to determine whether it would be feasible.

The BLM has a mandate under federal law to remove some horses to sustain the health of herds, rangelands and wildlife, Gorey said.

Horse herds can double in size about every four years, he added, and the BLM has determined the Antelope complex can handle 427 to 788 of the animals.

"There's nothing new in their arguments. They oppose gathers, period," Gorey said of the activists. "They say there's no need and let the population explode. Their laissez-faire management philosophy would result in cataclysm on the range, both to the range itself and the animals that depend on it."

Pickens last year purchased the 14,000-acre Spruce Ranch and adjoining 4,000-acre Warm Creek Ranch to serve as a sanctuary that would keep mustangs on the range instead of in government-funded holding facilities.

The Elko County ranches, which she has renamed the Mustang Monument preserve, come with grazing rights on about 564,000 acres of public land.

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Activists are calling for a reallocation of grazing rights in the Antelope complex, saying the BLM annually authorizes the equivalent of more than 2,000 privately-owned cattle and nearly 7,000 privately-owned sheep to graze in it.

"The bias favoring welfare livestock is shocking," said Ginger Kathrens, director of the horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation based in Colorado. "It is time to re-slice this pie and give wild horses their fair share of our public rangelands."

BLM spokeswoman Heather Emmons said some of those with permits in the Antelope complex have been forced to scale back or cease grazing in allotments because of scarce forage caused by an overpopulation of horses.

The federal agency has a multiple-use mandate for public lands, she said, and has authorized about 2,400 cattle and 10,500 sheep annually in the complex.

"I wouldn't say we're catering to anyone, but we're trying to follow the law and do what the land can sustain out there," Emmons said. "We're way over with horses out there. We want to get in there and manage them correctly with the right numbers."

Activists also contend that winter roundups — involving helicopters that drive horses to corrals — expose the animals to the risk of respiratory illness. They noted more than 100 horses died in a roundup north of Reno last winter.

BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said mustangs are easier to gather in the winter because they move from mountains to valleys and stand out better with snow on the ground.

Some 33,700 wild horses roam freely in 10 Western states, about half in Nevada. The BLM set a target level of 26,600 horses and burros in the wild, and removed 10,637 of the animals from the range in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Of the $63.9 million designated for the BLM's wild horse and burro program in the last fiscal year, holding costs totaled about $37 million.

More than 40,000 horses are in government-funded holding facilities, Gorey said.

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