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Horse Haven Would Be Exclusive Club

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          The wild horse sanctuary planned by Gov. Bill Richardson would have a maximum carrying capacity of about 25 to 30 of the iconic animals, according to an estimate by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
        That means the sanctuary could serve as home for just a tiny fraction of the 33,000 or so wild horses now roaming free on public lands in the West.
        Richardson recently announced a plan to spend $2.9 million in federal stimulus money to buy the 12,000-acre Ortiz Mountain Ranch in Santa Fe County for the sanctuary.
        The administration hasn't released estimates on how much more money it would take to get the sanctuary established and how much the annual operating costs would be. It says the sanctuary's operation will involve private and nonprofit organizations and one or more federal agencies.
        Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, the Democratic nominee to succeed Richardson, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, oppose using stimulus money to buy the ranch, saying the funds could be put to better use, given state government budget troubles. Denish's opponent, Republican Susana Martinez, also opposes it.
        Wild horses are descendants of domestic horses, some of which were brought to this country by European explorers in the 16th century. "Feral" is actually a more accurate adjective.
        According to the BLM, which runs the nation's Wild Horse and Burro Program, there were 33,102 wild horses in 10 Western states as of February 2009. New Mexico, with 114 wild horses, has the fewest. Most of the horses are in Nevada.
        New Mexico has two horse herds recognized as wild by the Bureau of Land Management. One is the herd in the Bordo Atravesado area east of Socorro; the other is in the Carracas Mesa area in north-central New Mexico near the Colorado border.
        As of February 2009, the Bordo Atravesado area had an estimated 102 wild horses, well above the maximum carrying capacity of 60 for the herd management area of 19,600 acres, according to the BLM.
        The Carracas Mesa area had an estimated 12 horses, well below the maximum carrying capacity of 23 for the herd management area of 9,000 acres.
        Horses in a free-roaming herd in the Placitas area just north of Albuquerque aren't recognized by the BLM as wild. The animals are considered escapees from their owners on the San Felipe Pueblo.
        Richardson said at a White House conference on the outdoors last spring that he wanted to establish a sanctuary for wild horses.
        "We need the BLM to better understand state needs to preserve these icons that are so much a part of America," the governor said.
        The BLM says that before it will allow wild horses to be moved onto a state-run sanctuary, the agency will need to conduct environmental studies, including an analysis of how many horses the sanctuary could sustain.
        "We just can't throw horses out there," said Bill Merhege, the BLM's deputy state director for resources.
        Administration and BLM representatives have met in recent months about the possibility of the sanctuary, and Merhege said he and a BLM range conservationist visited the ranch.
        Merhege said he estimated a maximum carrying capacity of 20 to 30 horses. "It could be less; it could be more. That's why we need to do the range studies," he said.
        The administration says the sanctuary could sustain 25-50 horses on the ranch land west of N.M. 14 and additional horses on the eastside of the highway where the main visitor center would be located.
        It says the ranch was chosen for the sanctuary became of its relative low price, readily available water sources and hiking trails and because the main ranch house could become a visitor center.
        Under Richardson's plan, the ranch would become part of Cerrillos Hills State Park. The ranch is about 10 miles south of the park, which now consists of just 1,100 acres and has two employees.
        The state's acquisition of the ranch is subject to approval by the state Board of Finance, which Denish sits on. Richardson is president of the board and postponed action on the ranch acquisition because he couldn't attend a meeting of the board this week.
        A final note: Wild horse advocate Madeleine Pickens was quoted as saying in a story published Wednesday that the United States had 2 million wild mustangs a century ago. The BLM says the figure has never been substantiated.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at (505) 992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com.
       
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