Wild horse trust fund drying up | NevadaAppeal.com

Wild horse trust fund drying up

Associated Press Writer

Nevada’s wild horses benefited for decades from money left to them by a Californian whose relatives said he was insane. Those funds finally are being used up, but lawmakers were told Friday the horses have another deep-pockets benefactor.

There are nearly 19,000 horses roaming vast stretches of open Nevada land ” two-thirds of all the wild horses scattered over 10 Western states. About 33,000 other horses have been captured in those states and are now in holding pens and corrals.

“It’s kind of a whole nightmare situation” for horses that remain in the holding areas and aren’t “adopted,” Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, said during a joint Senate-Assembly budget hearing.

The horses are “one of our few Old West traditions,” McClain added during the lawmakers’ review of the Nevada Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses, started with money willed to the animals by the late Leo Heil, of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Cathy Barcomb, who heads the commission, said that what began as a $500,000 bequest from Heil, who died in 1972, will be gone by mid-2010. The budget proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons provides no new funding to keep the protection effort going.

“We all knew this day was coming. The Heil trust fund would not last forever,” Barcomb said. But she added the horses will be helped by groups such as the Mustang Heritage Foundation, which was started with Heil funds, and by individuals such as Madeleine Pickens, wife of billionaire Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens.

Heil’s will stated his $500,000 bequest, which generated far more in interest earnings over time, was “for the preservation of wild horses in Nevada.” Relatives who were cut out of the will sued, questioning his sanity, and eventually settled out of court for $72,000.

Legislators were told that Pickens is looking for about 1 million acres of land, possibly in eastern Nevada, where most or all of the horses and burros now being kept at the federal holding areas could be turned loose.

Pickens, who says she’s always had a love for the West and for wild horses, came up with the idea after hearing that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was considering euthanizing some of the animals to control the herds and protect the range.

Her plans have been praised by animal rights groups, including some that have been preparing legal challenges to prevent the government from putting the horses to death.

But even if Pickens moves ahead with what she sees as a big attraction for tourists who view the horses as iconic symbols of the American West, state Sen. Dean Rhoads said there still may be high government costs for keeping horses that Pickens doesn’t get.

“They just have to change their policies somehow, because we just can’t continue spending millions and millions of dollars on horses that nobody wants,” said Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, a rancher.

The BLM this year will spend about $27 million ” about three-fourths of its horse and burro budget ” caring for the animals. Continuing current practices would require a budget of $58 million next year, escalating to $77 million in 2012.

, according to GAO estimates.

The GAO report also noted that the BLM has authority to kill or sell excess horses without restriction from slaughter, but has been loathe to do so.

Regarding the nearly 19,000 horses on the Nevada range, Barcomb said the BLM is trying to reduce that number by about 6,000, to about 13,000.

“Those are the 6,000 they’re trying to starve,” McClain said in questioning the BLM’s methods and expressing concern about the end of Nevada’s Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses.

“I hate to see this go away, especially with all the publicity with the way the BLM treats wild horses,” McClain said. “And then I hear the stories of people, because of the economy, turning loose domestic horses. They’re not going to make it.”