RENO, Nev. -- Madeleine Pickens, the wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, has bought a sprawling Nevada ranch to serve as a wild horse sanctuary that would keep mustangs on the range instead of in government-funded holding facilities.
If approved by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the move would mark the first time the government has released a large number of mustangs to such a facility.
Pickens is hoping to initially relocate 1,000 horses to the 14,000-acre Spruce Ranch about 70 miles east of Elko. Eventually, she wants to return all 34,000 horses in government-funded holding facilities and pastures to their natural habitat.
"It's such a huge beginning," Pickens said. "I plan to buy more property out there. There's such an overload of horses in government holding."
Pickens said BLM Deputy Director Mike Pool expressed support for the plan during meetings with her last month in Washington. BLM officials said they recently received a formal written proposal from Pickens and must review it before taking an official position.
"We're encouraged by the recent meetings with her," BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said. "We're looking forward to working with her to put the wild horse program on a sustainable track."
Pickens purchased the ranch, which she plans to rename the Mustang Monument preserve, for an undisclosed price. The property comes with grazing rights on 540,000 acres of public land. Pickens also is negotiating to buy an adjoining 4,000-acre ranch that has grazing rights for 24,000 acres of public land.
Pickens first proposed establishing a wild horse sanctuary in 2008 after the BLM said it was considering euthanasia as a way to stem escalating costs of keeping animals gathered from the open range.
However, the BLM rejected her initial proposal, saying it involved the use of public land where wild horses did not exist when the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was enacted in 1971. Federal law restricts mustangs from such areas.
Jerry Reynoldson, a consultant to Pickens and a former aide of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the proposal addresses that issue, and wild horses have historically lived in the area.
"What was always holding this sanctuary up was she didn't own a ranch," Reynoldson said. "Everything changed when she bought the ranch. This moves it from the conceptual talking stage to reality."
Under Pickens' latest proposal, a nonprofit foundation would care for the animals with a government stipend of $500 a head, per year. An education center and lodging facilities would be built, and the preserve would be fenced to confine horses.
"(The) wild horse eco-sanctuary will give them their natural habitat back, along with a place that Americans can come and view the horses and learn about the land and American culture," said Stacie Daigle of Pickens' Saving America's Mustangs group.
About 33,700 wild horses roam freely in 10 Western states, about half in Nevada. The BLM set a target level of 26,600 horses and burros in the wild to protect the herd, the range and native wildlife, and rounds up excess horses and offers them for adoption.
Those that are too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities, where they can live for decades.
Of the $63.9 million designated for the BLM's wild horse and burro program in fiscal 2010, holding costs exceeded $38 million, BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said. More than 8,000 horses are in short-term holding and 25,700 are in long-term pastures in the Midwest.
"The BLM has a moral and fiscal responsibility to do something because they took the horses off public lands and created this debacle," Pickens said.