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Placitas horse issue proving divisive

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Free-roaming horses standing beside Camino de las Huertas in Placitas last summer. Sandoval County hired an independent organization to work with a task force to find ways to deal with the growing population of unclaimed horses. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Free-roaming horses standing beside Camino de las Huertas in Placitas last summer. Sandoval County hired an independent organization to work with a task force to find ways to deal with the growing population of unclaimed horses. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Finding a workable solution to the thorny issue of free-roaming horses in Placitas has proved a tough nut to crack, even for an organization that specializes in consensus building.

Sandoval County leaders in September awarded New Mexico First – whose website says “We bring people together and find common ground” – a $23,500 contract to work with a task force of community members and government representatives to find mutually acceptable ways for dealing with the horses.

Placitas residents have been sharply divided between those who support the horses’ right to roam free and others who claim they damage property and pose a safety risk to local traffic.

Government agencies such as the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state Livestock Board have taken a hands-off approach because no one claims ownership of the horses.

But after the initial meeting in November with the roughly two-dozen-member task force, New Mexico First dropped its planned group information-gathering strategy, amended its county contract and canceled further group meetings. It will instead gather input through individual interviews with task force members.

Organization president Heather Balas said in an interview this week that the organization was overwhelmed with a deluge of emails and calls critical of representation, meeting procedures and whether video recording was allowed.

Placitas resident Patience O’Dowd of the Wild Horse Observers Association was critical, among other things, of the make-up of task force committees and the number of government representatives at the meeting.

Of 23 task force members who attended, meeting minutes show, 13 were Placitas residents along with representatives from entities such as the U.S. Forest Service, the state Attorney General’s Office, Santa Ana Pueblo, Sandoval County and the county sheriff’s department.

“The distribution of people in the room is in no way representative of the distribution of people in Placitas,” O’Dowd wrote in an email to Balas and another New Mexico First staffer.

Balas said New Mexico First’s goal is to pursue practical solutions.

“If we spent all our time addressing these (procedural questions), we would lose all our time,” she said.

County Manager Phil Rios defended New Mexico First’s decision to change format.

“We didn’t want to continue with the contract as it was when people were not trying to come up with solutions,” Rios said.

Balas said they have used the individual interview format in other situations. The contract amount will not change because the overall goal will remain the same. Individual interviews will be more time consuming for New Mexico First staff than large-scale meetings, Balas said.

Balas said the November meeting produced valuable ideas that they will pursue. For example, a poll of task force members showed 94 percent wanted to create legal policies for the Placitas horses and 84 percent wanted to overcome legal barriers to using contraceptives to control the population.

“The issue of slaughter got zero support,” Balas said. “That shows that all are interested in a humane solution.”

Nevertheless, the changes spurred Placitas resident Gary Miles to resign from the task force and email the other members, blasting New Mexico First and the county, accusing them of trying to “control the message.”

“They have created a ‘Wild Horse Task Farce’ to provide political cover for the decision that has already been made to remove you (the horses),” Miles said.

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