By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Madeleine Pickens, the wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who this week offered to rescue more than 30,000 wild horses kept in federal holding pens, said yesterday that she wants to create a permanent retirement ranch for the horses and burros that could be open to the public.
A key to her plan, she said, is federal tax credits to help attract donors. Pickens said she met last week with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to discuss the proposal, which animal rights advocates have long promoted as an incentive for encouraging private individuals to adopt wild horses.
"It's going to save tax dollars in the end, quite a bit," she said in an interview. "It has become so expensive to take care of these horses in these holding areas."
Half of the nation's wild horse population is in Nevada, and Pickens said Reid told her that he has been concerned about the issue for 25 years. Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid, said the senator was intrigued by the proposal but did not commit to it.
"He thought this was a creative idea to a problem that needs creative solutions," Summers said.
Officials with the Bureau of Land Management revealed this week that Pickens had come to them with a plan to relieve a growing agency headache -- the care of wild horses and burros that were removed from federal lands and placed in holding pens to await adoption. The government periodically gathers horses from the range to prevent overpopulation and damage to the grasslands. It typically rounds up about 10,000 horses in a year.
Horse adoptions have slowed significantly in the past five years, and the cost of feeding and caring for these horses has grown sharply, decimating the bureau's budget and creating what the Government Accountability Office termed a "crisis." The government is caring for about as many horses in holding facilities as the 33,000 that still roam wild on federal lands.
Bureau officials reluctantly began to consider exercising a legal but controversial option: euthanasia. Their focus was on about 2,000 unwanted horses that had not been adopted despite several tries.
Pickens, a racehorse breeder and lifelong animal lover, said she was horrified when she learned about the problem. "There's got to be a way to bypass them -- why does it have to be Washington to solve the problem?" said Pickens, who, along with her husband, airlifted 800 cats and dogs stranded by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and brought them to California for adoption.
She said that she approached officials at the Bureau of Land Management and that they embraced her idea. "I was just so thrilled -- at all the areas I expected a 'no' from, I just got a smile and 'Yes, we love it,' " she said.
Pickens is negotiating to win control of more than 1 million acres of grassland in the West, where she plans to establish a horse ranch. She intends to acquire part of the land through private sale and the rest through a lease with the federal government. She is considering several pieces of land, costing $10 million to $50 million.
Pickens wants to adopt all the wild horses and burros being held in federal pens, sterilize them and let them loose on her retirement ranch. As the government rounds up additional horses each year, she said, she could absorb them as well because they would replace horses on the ranch that die from natural causes.
"I see it as an eco-vacation spot," Pickens said. "Could you imagine taking your kids there, staying on the range in log cabins or tepees? I love the idea of sharing it with the American people."
Jeff Malcolm, an assistant director at the GAO who studied the wild horse program at the request of Congress, said that Pickens's idea could work but that the government would still need to control the population of wild horses roaming the range. "You have to look at the entire pipeline of the process," he said. "You need a strategy of population control."
Bureau officials have been experimenting with fertility control but have not employed a comprehensive method to manage the population growth of the animals.