When Gov. Bill Richardson announced last month a plan to create a state wild-horse preserve in New Mexico, activists were thrilled.

But a spokesman for a key player in wild-horse management, the Bureau of Land Management, tells SFR his agency has yet to be contacted, and cites potential problems with setting up such a preserve.

Richardson made his announcement at a White House conference to kick off America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, noting that in order for New Mexico’s plan for a wild-horse preserve to succeed, “we will need flexibility from the BLM.”

Richardson’s office referred questions about the plan’s specifics to the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

Jon Goldstein, the department’s secretary, says much of the EMNRD’s work over the last few months has focused on a band of 80 to 100 wild horses that roam in the Placitas area, an intersection of federal, tribal and private lands located approximately halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It’s where Patience O’Dowd, a wild-horse advocate and co-founder of New Mexico’s Wild Horse Observers Association, has been working to establish a preserve for the past eight years.

“This is a happy surprise, but it’s not a new surprise,” O’Dowd tells SFR. “We’ve been working for a preserve in Placitas for about eight years.”

She’s not alone. Alicia Nation, the executive director of the New Mexico Mustang and Burro Association, also has been

she calls the Santa Fe Wild Horse Sanctuary. In January, Nation sent a proposal to Richardson’s office; at its request, she says, she followed up with a more detailed one in February and has been waiting to hear back from the governor since. On May 7, O’Dowd and Nation will present Richardson with an award for his commitment to wild horses.

Both O’Dowd and Nation say Placitas would be ideal for attracting tourists and locals because of its proximity to both the Rail Runner and the highway.

To Goldstein, it presents other opportunities.

“One of the attractive things about a project in that Placitas area is we saw a lot of potential for teaming with the Bureau of Land Management and [San Felipe] Pueblo,” Goldstein tells SFR.

That, however, is precisely where things get tricky.

The Placitas herd exists in legal limbo: While it roams freely on tribal and federal lands, its horses belong to neither party. The BLM doesn’t recognize them as legally “wild,” Hans Stuart, a spokesman for the BLM’s New Mexico office, says.

And while Stuart says the past three governors of San Felipe Pueblo have officially recognized the horses as “escapees” from San Felipe Pueblo owners, a letter sent by Goldstein to San Felipe Pueblo officials tells a different story.

In March, Goldstein and State Parks Director Dave Simon met with San Felipe  Pueblo Gov. Feliciano Candelaria and War Chief Michael Sandoval; in April, Goldstein sent Candelaria and Sandoval a letter outlining the status of the Placitas herd and the possibilities for collaborating with the pueblo on a wild-horse preserve. Currently, Goldstein writes, the BLM’s policy is to remove “trespass” (not legally wild) horses from its land and “contain them.” A preserve, made up of federal, state, private and tribal (with the pueblo’s permission) lands, would give the horses a place to go.

But Stuart says at least part of that isn’t possible.

“There is no legal means for BLM to establish a preserve on public lands in New Mexico,” Stuart says. “We’re not allowed to introduce horses where they haven’t been found [naturally],” he says.

And despite Richardson’s call for cooperation, Stuart says this is the first he’s heard of a horse preserve in New Mexico.

“We haven’t been involved so far,” he says.

San Felipe Pueblo Tribal Administrator Charlotte Little says there are no plans in place yet. “This issue hasn’t been discussed thoroughly yet, so we don’t have anything to comment on—yet.”

According to Goldstein’s letter, if the pueblo were to claim the horses, it would gain “responsibilities…as well as opportunities to benefit from them.”

To O’Dowd, those opportunities are considerable.

“This is a huge gold mine for our state,” she says. “We should really be attracting people [using] the beautiful resources we have, and the Placitas horses are some of those.”