Saturday, March 7, 2009

House panel takes up bill to protect wild hors

By MATTHEW DALY Associated Press Writer
The wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens says her proposal for a wild horse sanctuary in the West would be good for the country and save the government close to a billion dollars over the next decade.

Madeleine Pickens told a House subcommittee on Tuesday that the proposed sanctuary for 30,000 wild horses would create a "living museum" for an icon of the American West. It also would prevent the "barbaric" slaughter of thousands of horses, Pickens told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

But a top federal official said the Pickens plan — initially welcomed as a way to save thousands of horses from being euthanized — is "problematic" and not viable as proposed.

"We really appreciate Mrs. Pickens' proposal, but it has presented some problems," said Ed Roberson, assistant director of renewable resources and planning for the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the wild horse program.

Pickens, a Dallas resident and lifelong equestrian, proposed a wild horse sanctuary last fall after the BLM said it was considering euthanasia to stem escalating costs of keeping animals gathered from the open range in long-term holding facilities.

Roberson said officials are willing to continue talks with Pickens, but face "unique challenges" in trying to care for wild horses while keeping down costs that topped $36 million last year. Annual costs could grow to $85 million by 2012 if the program is not changed, the BLM says.

Pickens has said her planned million-acre refuge in Nevada should receive a federal stipend of $500 per horse per year — or $15 million a year for 30,000 horses — in return for taking the animals off the government's hands. She estimated her plan would save the government as much as $700 million in costs otherwise spent for long-term holding by 2020.

The refuge would be located in part on public lands, most likely in Elko County in northeastern Nevada. Pickens said federal land was necessary because horses can roam up to 50 miles a day, but Roberson called it "problematic" to try to combine federal and private property for the program.

The BLM's acting head said a foundation run by Pickens could get a federal contract to care for the horses on private land, or the foundation could own and care for the horses without any federal compensation, but Pickens said she was disappointed at the BLM's response to her offer.

"It's sad but somewhat predictable," she said, citing what she called the agency's longtime mishandling of the wild horse and burro program.

About 33,000 wild horses roam in 10 Western states, more than half in Nevada. Thousands of horses also roam in Wyoming, California, Utah, Oregon and Arizona. The animals are managed by the BLM and protected under a 1971 law enacted by Congress.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the current program is not working, saying, "Essentially the BLM is running a captive horse program" at great cost to taxpayers.

Pacelle and Pickens testified Tuesday in favor of a bill to ban killing of healthy horses and burros that roam public lands, and set aside more federal land for the animals.

Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., sponsored the bill, saying it would ensure horses are not killed to save money.

"Let me state that the BLM is not going to slaughter 30,000 wild horses — not under this chairman," said Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.


On the Net:

The bill is H.R. 1018. Congress:

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