On a crisp May morning, Madeleine Pickens, a 65-year-old businesswoman and the soon-to-be-ex-wife of billionaire financier T. Boone Pickens, steps out onto the weathered porch of her old Nevada ranch house wearing taut white riding pants, suede boots and movie-star glasses under glossy platinum hair. She points briskly, using a dachshund mix named Tommy that she carries almost everywhere. "Over here will be teepees where visitors can stay. Over there will be large tents for gatherings in that grove of trees. And out there," she says, sweeping Tommy across the sage-studded desert and its blue-mountain horizon, "will be set up like a safari where you can go tour and camp out and see horses in their natural environment. It will be great."
By "out there" Pickens, who arrived by private jet the night before, means 560,000 acres of BLM land to which she holds grazing rights for the equivalent of approximately 1,100 cattle. She has spent millions trying to turn it into a "Mustang Monument" so that wild horses removed from public lands can roam in the natural setting they occupied for centuries, while tourists watch and learn.
The idea hit her in 2008, after the BLM proposed euthanizing 2,000 wild horses to keep them out of the holding system. Pickens, a longtime animal-rights advocate who had focused mostly on homeless dogs and cats, announced she not only wanted to adopt the horses facing euthanasia, but also the entire population in long-term holding -- about 20,000 at the time.
Like many advocates, she had long believed the BLM gives wild horses short shrift because cattle ranchers have a lock on public-land grazing. "So I thought to myself, fine, I'll just become a rancher," Pickens says. "I'll buy a ranch and turn the public-land grazing leases that had been used for cattle over to wild horses."
In 2010, she bought the 14,000-acre, $2.6 million Spruce Ranch south of Wells, Nev., and then the nearby 4,500-acre Warm Springs ranch, along with their associated grazing rights.
Then Pickens made her proposal: Instead of the BLM paying to truck horses from Nevada to overcrowded Midwestern pastures -- places off-limits to the public and to public scrutiny -- it should give the money to her nonprofit Save America's Mustangs foundation, which would let them roam relatively freely.
At first, many mustang advocates saw her proposal as a common-sense way to keep horses on the range. The BLM even announced in 2011 that it was creating a new system of "ecosanctuaries" -- private, nonprofit ranches where tourists can visit and adopt wild horses -- across the West. Pickens' would be among the first studied. Bob Abbey, BLM director at the time, called it "a milestone in our overall effort to reform the Wild Horse and Burro Program and put it on a cost-effective, sustainable track."
Now, however, a growing number see problems with the sanctuary idea and doubt its usefulness. Few people, even within the BLM, believe that sanctuaries will successfully address the wild horse program's troubles.
"It's an experiment," says BLM spokesman Tom Gorey. "The public seemed to be game for this different approach. Whether it makes a quantifiable difference -- maybe it has some benefit to the program we don't anticipate."
Those benefits won't be monetary: BLM studies suggest paying ecosanctuaries to house horses will likely cost as much as current long-term pastures.
And ecosanctuaries won't empty the holding system. Pickens' ranch, if approved, would be permitted to graze only 500 to 900 horses because of its limited forage. Horses, according to the BLM, eat more grass than cattle, and in some parts of the arid Great Basin, a single cow needs over 100 acres to survive. Another proposed sanctuary outside Laramie, Wyo., could hold up to 300 horses. Together, that's no more than a third of the horses targeted for roundup next year. The BLM is still looking –– so far unsuccessfully –– for more sanctuaries.
And it is far from clear whether Pickens' plans will survive the initial scoping process. Hundreds of wild horses already run free on BLM land within its boundaries. Adding their captured cousins to the mix would inevitably lead to breeding, increasing the population. BLM employees have suggested that sanctuary horses can co-exist with wild horses only with the help of about 70 miles of barbwire and by replacing some of the wild stallions with gelded males.
None of this goes over well with wild horse advocates.
"If they try to do anything with those existing herds, I guarantee there will be lawsuits," says Laura Leigh, founder of the advocacy organization Wild Horse Education.
But Pickens and the BLM are pressing ahead. She hopes to eventually expand her sanctuary until it can hold thousands. "If we show we can make it work, we can move forward. We can always buy more properties. I still want to take all of the horses out of long-term holding."