Desperately seeking pasture

Organizer of sanctuary for wild horses turns to local landowners for help

Pictured are a few of the horses that have lived at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.

Pictured are a few of the horses that have lived at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.

photo courtesy of dennis walker

Horse helpers:

Go to or to learn more about the mustang sanctuary and to contact founder Tracy Mohr.

Tracy Mohr choked up while recalling her first horse, a mustang she adopted back in 1999. Owning a horse had been a lifelong dream of the New Jersey native, and that became feasible when she moved to California, where horse ownership is more affordable.

“Gentling him and getting that bond was the most amazing experience,” she said of the then-6-month-old colt she named Cody.

Mohr is most known for her role as animal services manager for the city of Chico, and it probably goes without saying that she has a soft spot for animals. During a recent interview in her office at the shelter, as a nervous Chihuahua she’s socializing sat on her lap, Mohr explained her passion for rescuing larger four-legged companions.

Not long after adopting Cody, she came up with the idea of starting a youth organization that would allow kids, at-risk teens in particular, to help gentle mustangs. Part of the mission of what she named The Mustang Project is to give kids a sense of accomplishment and self-worth and to instill empathy toward animals and people. Incrementally, she’s been working on establishing the program.

More recently, though, Mohr’s focus has been on a complementary plan to open a sanctuary for wild horses. There’s a great need, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently rounding up the herds at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in the northwest corner of Nevada, near the community of Denio on the border of Oregon. Mohr came up with a plan to contract with the federal agency to take in some 70 or so horses, but she hit a major snag in recent weeks when a local private landowner she was going to lease property from backed out at the eleventh hour.

“It was kind of a shock to everyone,” she said.

It’s an understatement to call the loss of that property a setback. Months of preparations are all for naught, including a few thousand dollars that she sunk into an environmental review at the site. But more important, Fish and Wildlife is already well into its efforts gathering the equines. Mohr’s horses were scheduled to be transported to Butte County mid-September, and since there’s no stopping the federal agency’s timeline for rounding up the animals, she’s in a desperate situation to find a new place to house them in a short time—just a few weeks.

It’s certainly not an ideal spot to be in, but Mohr is keeping faith that the nonprofit will find a site. So, too, are other local horse advocates, including Concow horse owners and mustang admirers Laurel Paulson-Pierce and partner Dennis Walker, both of whom have been to the Sheldon Refuge and seen its horse residents—majestic creatures as they tell it. The couple saw more than 100 horses over a few days driving around the refuge last year.

“When we observed those horses, we got a sense of their family bonds. They have a special dynamic between them; how they work to protect each other,” Paulson-Pierce said.

Both she and Walker are critical of Fish and Wildlife’s removal policy.

Tracy Mohr is greeted by one of her three mustangs.

photo courtesy of tracy mohr

Paulson-Pierce noted how the federal agency calls the horses “feral.” She noted, however, that the animals’ lineage goes back to horses that were shipped off and used in wars dating back to the Civil War. Moreover, she said, their presence in the region predates the refuge’s inception.

“They’ve been around and part of the tradition of this nation for many years and helped to build this nation,” she said. “They deserve to be honored and protected.”

They believe the horses should remain at the site, but, since that’s not an option, the next best choice is Mohr’s plan of keeping the animals together, Paulson-Pierce said.

According to Oregon-based Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Megan Nagel, the agency will honor the existing contract with Mohr so long as she can provide adequate facilities for the horses. She explained how Fish and Wildlife contracts with what it refers to as “certified adoption agents” around the nation, who find the horses homes. Sheldon Refuge’s entire population of an estimated 450 horses and 100 burros is scheduled to be rounded up. The operation is expected to be completed by Friday, Aug. 15.

Years ago, Nagel said, the agency implemented some sterilization efforts to reduce the 20 percent breeding rate in a population of more than 1,300 horses. To keep the numbers in check, the agency culled the herds through roundups by about 200 animals per year. Nagel said that it’s only now feasible, with the size down to 400 or so horses, that the lot could be removed from the land, which is the long-term plan as outlined in the agency’s comprehensive conservation plan.

Nagel called the animals feral and said that they are the progeny of abandoned domestic horses that were part of a horse- and cattle-ranching outfit that operated on the land prior to the establishment of the refuge in 1931. The equines, she said, compete for resources with the native wildlife, and, as such, are the agency’s No. 1 challenge to preserving one of the last intact Great Basin ecosystems.

“Without the removal of the horses and burros, the service is unable to restore and conserve the native habitat for fish, wildlife and plants, which is the purpose for which the refuge was established,” she said. American pronghorn antelope and the greater sage grouse are two of the native species she mentioned.

Mohr heard about the roundup through her connections in the mustang community, and she agreed to take in many older horses, those that would be difficult or impossible to adopt out, since they will be too old to gentle enough to be trained.

“The thought is to have a real sanctuary where they could live out their lives in peace,” she said.

It’s a unique situation, since the horses would remain together—in effect, preserving the Sheldon herd for years to come.

Because it may take some time to find an ideal long-term site, Mohr’s open to finding a temporary set-up, preferably a spot that’s previously held horses or other livestock and has a reliable water source and hay storage. She’s putting out feelers in every capacity she can think of.

“This is the Hail Mary pass and we’re hoping there’s somebody on the other end who is going to catch it,” she said.