Recession Snags Plan for Wild Horse Sanctuary

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009

The gauzy dream of Madeleine Pickens, the wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, to save thousands of wild horses from government slaughter and turn them free in an "ecosanctuary" is crashing against the reality of bureaucracy and recession.

When Pickens offered in November to rescue more than 30,000 wild mustangs and burros in federal holding pens and move them to a permanent retirement ranch open to the public, she spoke of saving tax dollars by setting up a private foundation to care for the animals.

Now, as the economy worsens by the week, Pickens says philanthropic donations are as dry as tumbleweed, and she wants the federal government to pay her about $15 million a year to care for the horses she would take off its hands.

"Let me tell you this, seriously, you know, we're having a horrible financial crisis and it has hurt everybody," Pickens testified before a House Natural Resources subcommittee this week. "There isn't one person I can go to now to ask them to contribute to the foundation. I mean, before, I had so many friends I could go to."

Pickens still intends to spend $25 million to $50 million to purchase land for the ecosanctuary, but the deal is unworkable without government help, said Lee Otteni, who is retired from the federal Bureau of Land Management and working on the project for Pickens.

She has identified 1 million acres of suitable land in Nevada, home to half the nation's wild horse population. About half the land is privately held now, and the rest is federal property. Pickens told lawmakers of her hope to create a place where city children, Boy and Girl Scouts, families, 4-H members and animal lovers of all kinds could stay overnight in log cabins, sit by campfires and admire the mustangs while learning about their place in American culture. Families could drive a 50-mile road and see horses along the way, Otteni said.

Officials with the Bureau of Land Management initially embraced Pickens as a savior. They have been struggling with the growing financial and political headache of caring for the wild horses and burros that roam federal lands in 10 Western states. The horses, which date back to the time of the Spanish conquistadors, compete for food with cattle owned by ranchers who lease grazing rights on the land from the government.

Officials say the range can handle about 27,000 horses. The excess animals are rounded up and put into holding facilities to await adoption. In recent years, the government has shrunk the open space available to the horses by about 19 million acres, resulting in more roundups. The bureau has typically gathered about 10,000 horses a year.

But adoptions have slowed significantly in the past five years, and the cost of feeding and caring for the horses has grown sharply, decimating the bureau's budget and creating what the Government Accountability Office calls a "crisis."

The government is now caring for about as many horses in holding facilities as the 33,000 that roam wild. This year, the bureau expects to spend about $10.3 million on horses in long-term holding facilities and $22.6 million on horses in short-term corrals.

The problem has grown so extreme, bureau officials have reluctantly begun to consider a legal but controversial solution: euthanasia.

That horrified Pickens, a racehorse breeder and animal lover who, along with her husband, airlifted 800 cats and dogs stranded by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and brought them to California for adoption.

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