RENO (AP) - Wild-horse advocates may be unified in their sharp criticism of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, but they're split over President Barack Obama's choice to replace him.
Horse groups are hoping Recreational Equipment Inc. chief Sally Jewell will represent a shift in direction for the government's management of wild mustangs. They note nearly 40,000 horses have been removed from the range across the West during Salazar's four-year tenure, which ends in March.
Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, said her group "responded optimistically" to Jewell's nomination and looks forward to opening a dialogue with her about reforming the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's wild horse program.
"Sally Jewell is a surprising choice, but we're hopeful that as a conservationist and outdoor enthusiast, she'll appreciate the important role wild horses play in our national heritage and work with us to find ways to preserve them for future generations," Roy said. "Jewell will face many challenges as interior secretary, but time is running out for America's wild horses and burros, so she'll have to act quickly."
In announcing the nomination Wednesday, Obama said Jewell has earned national recognition for her environmental stewardship at REI, which sells clothing and gear for outdoor enthusiasts. He also noted her experience as an engineer in oil fields and her fondness for mountain climbing, biking and skiing.
But Anne Novak, executive director of California-based Protect Mustangs, said she has doubts about Jewell because of her earlier background as a commercial banker and Mobil Oil engineer.
"I'm very concerned that an appointment coming from big oil and banking will not protect native wild horses," Novak said. "They don't know how to make money out of mustangs but see environmental restrictions slowing down quick profits ... Her focus appears to be on making profits off public land."
Madeleine Pickens, head of Saving America's Mustangs and wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, said it remains to be seen whether Jewell can bring about real change in the BLM's management of mustangs. Pickens had endorsed Rep. Raul Grijalva-D-Ariz., as interior secretary, saying he would be the best choice to implement bold reforms.
"I don't know anything about her," Pickens told The Associated Press on Sunday. "But we're welcoming the change for sure. And we're hopeful that she doesn't start to drink from the same well that everybody has been drinking from in Washington.
"After a while, you realize these people are incapable of change whether Republican or Democrat. The animals get left out at every turn. Politically, the mustang has always been treated as less than a desert cockroach," she added.
Horse defenders strongly oppose the BLM's ongoing program to remove mustangs from public lands, saying there are now more of the animals "stockpiled" in government holding facilities than remain free on the range.
About half of the estimated 37,000 horses and burros on federal lands are in Nevada. BLM maintains that the range can sustain only about 26,000 and conducts roundups regularly to try to get closer to that number.
Jewell must undergo hearings and win U.S. Senate confirmation to become interior secretary.