CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is seeking proposals for establishing "eco-sanctuaries" for wild horses amid controversy over its handling of these icons of the range.
The BLM said Tuesday it would provide up to $40 million over five years to establish the sanctuaries, funding the agency expects to have available through the existing federal Wild Horse and Burro Program.
Half of the grant money would be available for sanctuaries located on private and public land within established wild horse herd areas, which are located in 10 Western states. The other $20 million would fund sanctuaries on private land that could be located in any part of the U.S.
"The idea is to help the BLM take care of excess wild horses," said Derrick Henry, a spokesman for the BLM in Washington.
Minimum requirements for a sanctuary include keeping at least 200 horses in good condition -- thin enough to be able to feel their ribs, not so thin that the animals look bony. Also, horse sanctuaries would need to be open to the public in a way not disruptive to the horses.
"What we typically want out of an eco-sanctuary is something that's better for the taxpayer and better for the horses," said Karla Bird, the BLM's acting division chief for wild horses and burros.
She said several people already have called to ask about the grants, and nonprofit involvement in the sanctuaries could help keep costs down.
More than 38,000 wild horses roam Wyoming, Nevada, California and seven other Western states. The populations would double every four years, except that the BLM rounds up about 10,000 horses a year to keep the herds in check and prevent overgrazing.
The BLM adopts out many of the horses to the public and sends others to long-term holding facilities and pastures in the West and Midwest. Such facilities and pastures are home to about 40,000 horses.
Ranchers support the roundups but animal rights groups call them inhumane, saying they often injure horses. Meanwhile, the program's cost has tripled over the past decade to $64 million a year.
The BLM announced in February it would scale back wild horse roundups following a U.S. House vote to cut BLM funding by $2 million -- a protest vote against the roundups.
"We were trying to make the point that we ought to look at alternatives. It wasn't beating anybody over the head or anything -- merely to point out there was a great deal of concern," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who sponsored the measure.
One possible location for a BLM-recognized wild horse sanctuary, he said, could be on Nevada ranchland Madeleine Pickens, wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, has purchased for the animals.
Burton and a co-sponsor of the BLM spending cut, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., praised the BLM's interest in horse sanctuaries. Burton said they could provide for wild horses at one-fifth of current costs.
"We must consider all options for humanely caring for these wild animals without incurring unnecessary costs to taxpayers," said Moran.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association supports horse sanctuaries on private land but not on federal land in place of cattle grazing, said the group's executive vice president, Jim Magagna.
The association has doubts, as well, about BLM plans to reduce roundups to 7,600 horses a year by relying more on sterilizing wild horse mares.
"That's very troublesome to us," Magagna said. "Not that we're opposed to the sterilization program, but it's been shown to have limited effectiveness."
The sanctuary idea grew out of the Department of Interior discussions over a year ago about possibly buying land in the eastern U.S. to keep wild horse herds. The idea hit opposition in Congress and among the public.
"Everybody said you shouldn't use federal dollars to buy more areas for horses, even if it is in the East," Bird said.