By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
Associated Press Writer
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Conservationists are looking to the wife of Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens to help push for federal reforms that they say will help thousands of wild horses and save rangeland in the West.
Madeleine Pickens recently announced plans to create a refuge for wild horses. She 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.
WildEarth Guardians wants to take Pickens' plan further by proposing a solution the group believes would resolve public land grazing conflicts that have resulted in the horses needing a home.
"Our proposal will not only benefit these animals where they currently live, but also enhance wildlife and watershed protection on federal public land," the group told Pickens in a letter sent Wednesday.
Pickens, who is negotiating the purchase of the land for her refuge, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
WildEarth Guardians is advocating congressional legislation that would allow ranchers who have grazing permits on federal public land to relinquish the permits in exchange for compensation. The idea is that livestock would be removed from the allotment, leaving a refuge for wild horses and other native animals and plants.
Mark Salvo, director of WildEarth Guardians' campaign to protect the West's sagebrush landscape, said he believes voluntary grazing permit buyouts are catching on with ranchers.
"Public land grazing is a challenging business pursuit," he said. "It's really difficult to raise livestock profitably on arid Western public land, particularly when you're competing against not only feedlots in Kansas, Nebraska and Florida, but also in Brazil and Japan and Argentina. These are changing times on our Western public land, and livestock grazing is a fading economic activity."
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, disagrees. She noted that agriculture, including ranching, is among the top economic drivers for New Mexico and that outsourcing food production by pushing ranchers from the land could have dangerous consequences.
"If we drive food production out locally, we're going to be depending on foreign food," she said.
Cowan said one concern surrounding the retirement of grazing permits is that wildlife would no longer have access to the supplemental feed and water that ranchers provide for their livestock on public land.
Another concern, she said, is that private land surrounding public grazing allotments would not be protected from development without ranchers who maintain the land for their agricultural operations.
Cowan said conservationists have pushed for years for permit buyout legislation. This time, she said, they are trying to ride a publicity wave created by Pickens' interest in the wild horses.
WildEarth Guardians maintains that voluntary permit buyouts would be "economically rational" and "ecologically imperative."
"It's also politically pragmatic," Salvo said. "It's a way to resolve grazing conflicts in a way that everybody can agree."
He said support by Pickens and other wild horse advocates would be invaluable to any effort to create a national permit buyout program.
The BLM estimates that 33,000 wild horses and burros roam the open range in 10 Western states. The agency wants that population to be about 27,000 to protect the herd, the range and other foraging animals.
Those horses that too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities, and the BLM has said the cost of keeping animals in the facilities has caused them to consider euthanasia as a last resort.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)