MADRID (AP) — Cattle grazed for decades on the Ortiz Mountain Ranch and its rocky range dotted with pinion, juniper and cholla cactus, but New Mexico plans to bring back another inhabitant that has disappeared from much of the Western landscape — wild horses.
Gov. Bill Richardson's administration is buying the 12,000-acre ranch near this former coal mining town to create the first state-run preserve for wild horses.
The proposal is drawing praise from activists trying to save wild horses, but it has run into opposition because of Richardson's idea for financing the deal. He intends to spend $2.8 million in federal economic stimulus money to acquire the land.
"The money should be used for people versus animals, as far as I'm concerned, given the financial condition the state is in," said Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate committee that handles the budget.
Other critics include the candidates for governor, Republican Susana Martinez and Democrat Diane Denish, a two-term lieutenant governor under Richardson, who is term-limited.
In the last two years, New Mexico has cut spending by more than $800 million — about 14 percent — to balance the budget as revenues dropped because of the slumping economy.
A new round of budget cuts took effect this month. Just a day before Richardson touted the wild horse sanctuary at a news conference at the ranch, the Democratic governor's administration sent notices to lower-income families that about 7,000 children will have child-care subsidies eliminated.
But Richardson dismissed criticism of his wild horse proposal, saying "it's an excellent use of stimulus dollars."
"It's going to increase tourism and jobs, and that's what the stimulus is for," said Richardson.
Richardson and his supporters envision the state's wild horse sanctuary as an "eco-tourism" draw and a chance for people to see a herd of wild horses only a 30-minute drive from the trendy restaurants and art galleries of nearby Santa Fe.
"It's a very smart plan," said John Holland of Shawsville, Va., president of the Equine Welfare Alliance and a harsh critic of the federal government's management of wild horse herds on public lands across the West.
"If we continue the way we're going, the wild horses are history," said Holland.
The Bureau of Land Management estimates more than 38,000 horses and burros roam across 10 Western states, with about half in Nevada. An additional 35,000 animals have been removed from the range and most are in long-term holding centers in Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota and Iowa.
Three herds of wild horses, with a combined population of about 500, are on federal lands in New Mexico, according to the Forest Service and BLM, which contend the land can support no more than half that number. The largest herd is in northern New Mexico on Forest Service and Jicarilla Apache Nation lands.
Holland said government estimates of horse numbers are unreliable, but a report to Congress put the wild horse population in the early 1970s at more than 6,000 in New Mexico and ten times that number nationally.
New Mexico's ranch purchase must clear a final hurdle — approval from the State Board of Finance. However, Richardson should be able to push the deal through because he serves as the board's president and appoints a majority of its members.
The administration plans to expand a state park with the ranchland, but it's uncertain how many of the 12,000 acres will be set aside for the horse preserve, according to Jodi Porter, spokeswoman for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
Also unanswered is how many wild horses will be kept at the property. Other questions include where the horses will come from, the yearly cost to operate the preserve and how the state will control the herd's growth. Richardson suggested the state will operate a wild horse adoption center.
The state expects it will take 12 to 16 months — well after Richardson leaves office on Dec. 31 — to develop a master plan for managing the expanded park and preserve.
BLM spokesman Hans Stuart said there's been discussions with the state about the agency supplying a breeding population of horses for the preserve, but the Richardson administration hasn't made a formal proposal.
If BLM provides horses, he said, the agency would prepare an environmental impact statement, provide an opportunity for public comment and determine how many horses could be kept on the property, given the condition of the semiarid rangeland.
For Richardson, there's a personal bond with horses. He owns a horse named Toby and occasionally rides in the mountains near Santa Fe. He once appeared in a campaign commercial riding a horse and dressed as a Western sheriff.
The governor describes the purchase of the ranch as a "long term investment" that will help save a part of the West's heritage.
"What we're doing here is protecting the environment ... leaving a legacy for future generations of New Mexicans and protecting the wild horses and mustangs that somehow our government has not been as hasty in protecting," Richardson said at the ranch last week.