RENO, Nev. (AP) - The worst economy in a generation and a changing-of-the-guard in Washington, D.C., has slowed progress but not the wife of a Texas billionaire's enthusiasm to create a wild horse sanctuary in the West and save tens of thousands of animals from doom.
"I think in the beginning I was somewhat naive of how slow things in Washington are," Madeleine Pickens, wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview.
With Congress focusing on the recession and how to jump start the economy, Pickens said she understands the priorities. "They're so focused on the stimulus and how to fix the country, and I understand that, I want them to," she said.
Pickens also said discussions with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have stalled as the agency awaits appointment of a new
director following President Barack Obama's election in November and with the recent retirement of BLM Deputy Director Henri Bisson, with whom she worked in the past on her plan.
"They've not yet nominated anybody to be head of the BLM," she said. "I can't get anything done because there's nobody there to work with."
Pickens' sanctuary proposal surfaced last fall after the BLM said it was considering euthanasia as a way to stem escalating costs of keeping animals gathered from the open range in long-term holding facilities. The BLM has since said it would shuffle $20 million to keep the horse program running through the end of the fiscal year as alternatives to euthanasia are considered.
"They broke the story," she said of the BLM. "They were probably horrified of the box they got themselves into. Then they kind of left me hanging."
About 33,000 wild horses roam in 10 Western states, about half of those in Nevada. The horses and burros are managed by the BLM and protected under a 1971 law enacted by Congress.
The agency, which set a target "appropriate management level" of 27,000 horses in the wild to protect the herd, the range and other foraging animals, rounds up excess horses and offers them for adoption. Those too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities, where they can live for decades.
A recent Government Accountability Office report said the BLM this year will spend about $27 million caring for the animals. Continuing current practices would require a budget of $58 million next year, escalating to $77 million in 2012.
The report also noted that euthanasia, though unpalatable, is authorized under current law as a way to dispose of excess animals.
That could change under a bill introduced by Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.V. and Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.
Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and longtime advocate of wild horses and burros, said slaughtering what he and many others consider iconic symbols of the American West is
His bill would prohibit the killing of healthy animals, as well as authorize more public lands be set aside for their habitation.
In a statement to the AP, Rahall said his bill would complement Pickens' private efforts.
"But at the same time we must ultimately root out the underlying issue - mismanagement of this program by the BLM could result in the euthanasia of otherwise healthy horses," he said.
"My legislation will provide the BLM with the necessary tools to effectively manage America's wild horse population."
Pickens said she is scheduled to testify in Rahall's committee March 3, a day after the National Wild Horse and Burro National Advisory Board meets in Reno.
In the meantime, she said she continues to look for land, including Elko County in Nevada, for 1 million suitable acres, or roughly 1,500 square miles, to establish the refuge that she hopes to sustain as an eco-friendly western, educational resort run by a nonprofit foundation.
She also clarified that the acreage she seeks wouldn't all be privately owned. Like other ranches in the West, she said the effort would require BLM grazing allotments, and a stipend to take the horses off the government's hands.
"You've got to get some kind of break from the government," she said. "We need help from them." She estimated her plan would save the government upward of $700 million in costs otherwise spent for long-term holding by 2020.
"It's a simple deal," she said. "We take the horses, you pay a stipend for it, part goes into the foundation and it pays for the ranch and the horses get taken care of."
Pickens believes it will take some persuasion to convince ranchers that cattle and large numbers of horses can live side-by-side.
"We've had a lot of push back from landowners in Nevada, cattlemen, she said. "I wish they would see this as a positive plan rather than a negative."
Boyd Spratling, a former president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association who sits on the national wild horse advisory panel, described sentiment among ranchers as "mild skepticism" rather than outright opposition.
A veterinarian in Elko County's Starr Valley, Spratling said public land grazing permits come with restrictions and regulations.
"I think she has the impression that if she has large tracks of land she can run animals year round," he said. "She'd have to comply with the same regulations other livestock grazers are required to comply with."
In the arid West, even the best grazing lands can only sustain limited numbers of animals for a portion of the year, he said.
"I think those type of complications may doom her goal more than anything else - the gymnastics one has to go through," he said.
Spratling noted that the idea of nonprofit groups purchasing land or converting livestock grazing permits to horse grazing was among more than a dozen recommendations the board approved in November as a way to try to avoid euthanasia.
Despite the hurdles, Pickens remains confident.
"This is not just some wild hair idea," said Pickens, who after Hurricane Katrina orchestrated an airlift to rescue 800 abandoned dogs and cats from New Orleans.
"It will be done right, it just takes patience."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)