Sunday, March 8, 2009

Recession Snags Plan for Wild Horse Sanctuary

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009; Page A02

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.

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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