By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008; Page A01
The unwanted horses seemed destined for death. The wheels had been set in motion to put down about 2,000 healthy mustangs, those in a federally maintained herd of wild horses and burros that no one wanted to adopt.
The Bureau of Land Management knew that euthanasia was a legal alternative, but officials were proceeding slowly, afraid of an intense public outcry. The wild horses had become too expensive to maintain, and cattlemen argued that turning them loose would be a drain on the already scarce grazing lands of the West.
Then yesterday, at a public hearing in Reno, Nev., to discuss the issue, a solution arrived on a white horse, so to speak.
Madeleine Pickens, wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, made known her intentions to adopt not just the doomed wild horses but most or all of the 30,000 horses and burros kept in federal holding pens.
Lifelong animal lovers, the Pickenses just a few years ago led the fight to close the last horse slaughterhouse in the United States/
Madeleine Pickens is looking for land in the West that would be an appropriate home for the horses.
She is working with the BLM staff to adopt the horses, said Henri Bisson, the bureau's deputy director, while the agency persuades Congress to shift $20 million in funding to feed and protect the horses now in captivity for another year. As backup to Pickens's offer, he said, two other groups, both animal rescue organizations, have expressed similar interest in adoption. "We are very hopeful that euthanasia won't be necessary this year," he said.
The news that Pickens and others intend to adopt the wild horses and burros was celebrated by animal rights groups, several of which were preparing legal challenges to prevent the government from putting the horses to death.
"Of course, I'm thrilled, obviously, that these horses are getting a reprieve," said Shelley Sawhook, president of the American Horse Defense Fund. "At the same time, we need to address the basic issue of how these animals got in this position in the first place."
Bisson said policymakers have to resolve the conflict between a law that permits euthanasia and a nation that is opposed to it. "This is a situation where we have to have a conversation about what the law requires," he said. "We're hearing from members of Congress they don't think euthanasia is an appropriate solution, but the law says, 'You shall.' " If people don't like what the law says, they need to address it. We hope we will find homes for all of these animals before the year is out and Congress will decide what it wants to do about the law."
Long an American icon and inspiration for song and story, the wild horse has special protection under a 1971 law. The federal statute calls wild horses "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" that should be "protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death." But the same law also requires the government to achieve "appropriate management levels" of roaming horses so they don't overwhelm federal lands -- and that's the part that has been vexing for bureau officials.
About 33,000 horses still roam wild on federal lands in 10 Western states. About half of those are in Nevada. The federal agency believes the range can accommodate only about 27,000 horses, and each year government-hired cowboys round up 7,000 to 13,000 horses and take them to holding pens in several states.
Right now, there are just over 30,000 horses in holding facilities awaiting adoption. Those 10 or older or those who have not been adopted after three tries can be sold without restriction under 2004 legislation.