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Recession Snags Plan for Wild Horse Sanctuary

T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital and a longtime Republican donor, has grown increasingly visible in the cause of alternative energy. He is traveling the country promoting the "Pickens Plan," which encourages the creation of wind farms and calls for a greater reliance on natural gas to slow global warming.

While her husband supports her, Madeleine Pickens is the chief architect of the wild horse plan.

She says she wants to adopt all wild horses and burros being held in federal pens, sterilize them and turn them loose on her retirement ranch. As the government rounds up additional horses each year, she says, she could absorb them because they would replace horses that die from natural causes.

When she floated her plan in November, Pickens was saluted as a heroine by animal lovers around the globe. She became ABC News's "Person of the Week," one fan wrote a song about mustangs in her honor, media outlets from as far away as Australia called, and a German documentary-maker is following her around with a camera.

Born in Europe, Pickens has said that she fell in love with America after steady viewing of "Bonanza," the '60s TV western. "From the time I was a little girl, I dreamed of coming to this incredible country," she told lawmakers. "I was filled with visions of the Wild West, where horses roamed free. . . . Probably no other image around the world symbolizes America like that of the wild horse."

Initially, Pickens said she would need federal tax credits to attract donors. But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who met with her, was cool to that idea.

Ron Wenker, the Nevada state director for the Bureau of Land Management, said the money Pickens is seeking -- $500 per horse per year -- is about the same amount the government pays private ranchers who host wild horses long term on their pastures under federal contracts.

But a federal agency that relies on annual appropriations from Congress has no authority to commit to ad infinitum payments to Pickens, Wenker said. Furthermore, he said, the property that she wants is ineligible under a federal law that restricts horses to public lands that they inhabited as of 1971.

When Pickens pitched her idea last fall, there was no mention of payments from the government, Wenker said. If anything, the government usually charges a nominal fee to people who want to adopt wild horses, he said.

Pickens maintains that her proposal will save the government over the long run -- $700 million by 2020 -- because it will no longer have to fund expensive short-term holding facilities. In addition, because horses that roam free tend to die sooner than those kept in holding facilities, the horses on her ranch will live shorter lives, costing the government less.

She says her plan is stalling because the bureaucracy cannot respond to an innovative solution.

"They say, 'Oh, she wants taxpayers' money,' " Pickens said. "No, I'm trying to save taxpayer money. They have more horses in holding than they do on the range. That's not good for the horses, and that's not good for the taxpayers."

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) has introduced a bill that would allow wild horses on the federal land being eyed by Pickens. Among other things, his plan would also prohibit federal officials from slaughtering any horse that is not terminally ill.

Pickens's proposal makes sense for taxpayers, Rahall said. "Her plan uses a combination of private resources and public funds," he said. "And in today's tight budget, that's nothing to walk away from."

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