Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, April 13, 2012

Madeleine Pickens wants to save America’s wild mustangs.

The wife of Texas oil and gas magnate T. Boone Pickens said she is in the final throes of a deal that would allow her to open a sanctuary in northeast Nevada to shelter up to 1,000 wild horses that have been culled from public range-lands. The refuge, to be known as Mustang Monument, would showcase what she warned is a dying part of the Western pioneering tradition.”I’m here to fix a problem,” Pickens, 65, said in an interview with Greenwire. “I’m here to save the wild horses.”

The Bureau of Land Management, squeezed under the mandate of a federal law that requires both the protection and containment of America’s wild herds, for decades has removed excess horses and burros by the thousands. While more than 30,000 horses currently roam several Western states, about 47,000 of the animals are fed and cared for in holding pens and Midwestern pastures, despite mounting costs to taxpayers. Amid tightening budgets, BLM has begun an aggressive campaign of fertility control to reduce the growth of herds, which, if left unchecked, can double in size every four years. But it will take years before the program bears fruit. As a result, BLM this year said it must gather 7,500 horses, many — if not most — of which will end up in private corrals and long-term pastures that consume more than half the agency’s budget.

Pickens’ solution would turn some of those horses into an asset.By next year, Pickens hopes to open the nearly 600,000-acre eco-sanctuary on private and public lands south of Wells, Nev., where tourists could observe and learn about wild horses and their role in the West. “The rest of the world is crazy about our animals,” Pickens said. “But it’s shocking that Americans do not know about them.”

The monument would come replete with electronic classrooms and educational seminars about wild horses and American Indian history, she said. It would offer guided hikes through the desert, covered wagon rides, storytelling, camping in teepees, music and American Indian legends, arts and crafts. Writers and photographers could come for creative inspiration. Others would come to learn about the science of range-land management and equine care. Pickens said she has spent millions of dollars buying two ranches on nearly 20,000 acres, in addition to acquiring grazing permits that she has proposed converting from cattle to horses.

Despite its remote location — Wells is about a three-hour drive west of Salt Lake City and a five-hour drive east of Reno — Pickens said she believes the monument could draw up to 2 million visitors a year. “Why would [people] go all the way out to Yellowstone? Because that’s what they want. They want to be out where they’re in the wilderness,” she said. “They can have a Ritz Carlton anywhere. … They want to see their natural resources.”

Though details of the her proposal to BLM have not been disclosed, Pickens said the monument will be “sustainable.” Economic sustainability, however, may be years away. “Remember this, I don’t make a dime on this project, not a dime,” she said. “I’m not canvassing to make money. I’m canvassing to save something.”

An impending decision

Pickens said she believes BLM could decide by the end of this month whether to accept her proposal, which she first pitched in 2008. The agency in February announced the winner of a separate BLM proposal to build an eco-sanctuary on 4,000 acres of private lands in Wyoming (Greenwire, March 15).

Pickens must prove to BLM that she will be able to care for the horses at a lower cost than what BLM currently pays government contractors. The agency last year spent an average of $475 for each horse kept in long-term pastures and $1,733 for each horse kept in short-term corrals.

“One of the criteria is being cost effective so there is some benefit to the American taxpayer,” said BLM spokesman Tom Gorey. The agency a year ago rejected an earlier proposal from Pickens, arguing the plan wouldn’t save taxpayers money and doesn’t include enough water and forage for the mustangs (Greenwire, Jan. 24, 2011).

The agency in its request for proposals last May said it is willing to pay up to $20 million for proposals that will allow horses to roam freely — but separately — from herd management areas. Eco-sanctuaries must also promote adoption and training opportunities and provide economic opportunities for local communities, among other requirements.”The eco-sanctuary concept is the first time that the BLM has sought to provide opportunities for local entrepreneurs to care for horses and at the same time generate tourism to local communities,” Gorey said. Pickens said she has spent thousands of dollars meeting the agency’s stringent requirements but expressed frustration it has taken so long. “Time is not of the essence for BLM,” she said.

Pickens, whose ranch currently houses 500 horses she bought from a Piute Indian reservation, said she is ready to take up to 1,000 wild horses from BLM’s short-term holding corrals. Birth control would be used to control herd size, she said. While Pickens has said she intends to protect tens of thousands of horses, she said it is up to BLM to decide whether it makes sense for her to expand.

If her proposal is picked, BLM would need to conduct an environmental analysis of the potential environmental, social and cultural impacts of designating more than half-a-million acres of public lands as a horse sanctuary while balancing historic uses including hunting and recreation.

Questions remain

The proposal is also fraught with legal questions.

For example, it is unclear whether Pickens would take title to the horses or whether they would remain under the control of BLM. Under current law, BLM may not be able to pay a foundation to care for privately owned horses. But if they remain under public ownership, current law requires they be kept within their designated herd-management areas.

Ranching groups have come out against the Pickens proposal. In the past, the government has been sued for allowing wild horses to roam beyond where they were found in 1971, when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

“What you do on you private property, if Madeleine wants to have a private eco-sanctuary, we would definitely be in support of that, no problem,” said J.J. Goicoechea, president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. “What we’re concerned about out here is the resource and protection of the resource. The water’s pretty dang limited out here.” The Elko County Commission in fall 2010 passed a resolution opposing Pickens’ plan, which it called a “Band-Aid” solution that could have a “detrimental impact to the custom and culture of the county,” according to minutes from the agency’s meeting.

Ranchers in the West have long tussled with BLM over the management of wild horses, which are seen as competitors with cattle for valuable forage. Indeed, an ongoing debate in the West continues about whether horses — which were brought to America by European explorers in the late 15th and 16th centuries and, biologically, did not evolve in North America — should be considered a native species or an invasive pest. Goicoechea said the ranchers who sold their permits to Pickens did so because wild horses had already done significant damage to the area by overgrazing and pawing creek banks to take mud baths and relieve themselves from flies.

“It’s a huge risk of those horses getting out into someone else’s grazing allotments,” he said. Other critics have claimed that if Pickens’ plan is approved, she and other wealthy philanthropists would buy up more lands across the West. Pickens called such fears “silly.”

“There are only about two dozen who oppose this,” she said. “The rest of Elko is made up of people who love it.” The city of Wells supports the opportunity to spur tourism, she added. BLM and taxpayers should support it too, Pickens said. “People in America don’t feel like they should be paying subsidies for anything right now.”

Pickens in 2005 helped airlift 800 cats and dogs stranded during Hurricane Katrina out of New Orleans. She said she is puzzled that many in agricultural communities seem opposed to rescuing animals.

“The cattlemen will always be there screaming, because you know what they want?” she said. “They want to slaughter the horses.”