By Joe Tash
As a child growing up in Iraq, Madeleine Pickens watched American Western movies and dreamed of immigrating to the United States. Among the images of the Wild West spirit that etched into her memory was that of mustangs roaming on the prairie.
Later, as an adult, Pickens learned of the plight of wild horses in the modern American West — rounded up and confined to government corrals, or even sent to the slaughterhouse.
“The idea of them running free and being gathered up by helicopters in such a traumatic style, being disposed of or warehoused by the government was such a sad thing for me,” said Pickens, a businesswoman and philanthropist, and wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens. “So I got involved.”
Pickens, who owns the Del Mar Country Club, founded Saving America’s Mustangs, a nonprofit foundation. So far, she has purchased two ranches in northeast Nevada totaling more than 18,000 acres, and she wants to use that land, along with some 600,000 acres of federal land surrounding her property, to create a preserve for wild horses.
As part of her efforts to bring attention to her cause, the foundation has created a video appeal to Oprah Winfrey, and she shows off a group of mustangs she rescued at public events, from the Rose Parade to college football games. Her mustangs marched at the Del Mar Racetrack on Wednesday, July 20, as part of opening day festivities for this year’s race meet.
According to Pickens, the situation is urgent — a century ago, she said, some 2 million wild mustangs roamed the west. Today, only about 28,000 survive. “To me, that’s pretty close to extinction.”
Pickens’ plan, which has the support of a number of celebrities, including her husband, is for her foundation to manage thousands of mustangs on the Nevada preserve on behalf of the federal Bureau of Land Management. Pickens said she could save the government millions of dollars in annual costs, and allow the mustangs to flourish.
This summer, she brought 500 mustangs to her ranch that she rescued from being sent to a slaughterhouse, where they have now been released. Eventually, she would like to establish the Mustang Monument, a sanctuary that would also become an attraction for American and foreign tourists to experience a taste of the Wild West.
She envisions an eco-preserve where people could camp out overnight, see mustangs in the wild, and even get a taste of covered wagons and other staples of the days of cowboys and Indians.
“We have a sexy history and I want to capture this,” she said.
The ranch has been transferred to the foundation’s ownership, she said, and all proceeds from the operation will go back into furthering the nonprofit’s goals.
While her plan has drawn the ire of cattle ranchers who want to continue allowing their herds to graze the federal lands, as they have for decades, others in northeast Nevada support her plan because of its potential for generating tourism dollars, according to a December report in the Wall Street Journal.
Pickens said she has invested a sizeable sum of her own money into the foundation, but declined to discuss specific numbers. “This is my passion,” she said.
In April, Pickens testified before members of the House Interior Appropriations Committee, urging them to support the creation of an eco-preserve for wild mustangs.
Her foundation has also held galas, organized letter-writing campaigns and used public appearances — such as bringing the horses to opening day at the Del Mar racetrack — to get the word out.
Pickens said those who are interested in supporting the plan can log on to the foundation’s website at www.savingamericasmustangs.org, to register to receive updates and find out how they can become involved.
The campaign has made a difference, she said, and has caught the attention of officials at the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the public lands where Pickens wants to establish the refuge for wild horses.
“It’s time for a change,” she said, both in the way wild horses are treated, and in the mentality of cattlemen and ranchers who don’t want to provide roaming land for the mustangs.
“All we are saying is leave the horses alone, and they can’t handle that,” she said.