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The hopes for creating the world's largest wild horse sanctuary have dwindled in the last month. Last fall, Madeleine Pickens, wife of oilman T. Boone Pickens, proposed buying or leasing a million acres of land out West to save the 30,000 some wild horses that the Bureau of Land Management is keeping in holding pens. Now the BLM is claiming the plan won't work because of issues of money and location. "We tried to thank her politely," Ron Wenkler, the BLM's director for Nevada obnoxiously said.

In case you haven't checked into the mess that is our country's wild horse conservation program, here's the backstory: We used to have about 2 million wild horses but that dwindled as we took their land. Wild horses starved, were shot by ranchers or rounded up and sold for dog meat -- until the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

The BLM originally estimated we had 17,000 horses left, but were wildly off. We had 42,000. We originally gave horses 54 million acres, but cut that down to 35 million. The BLM continually cuts the population it wants to mis-manage on the range. Right now it has 33,000 roaming, but it wants to cut that to 27,000. The agency had less than 10,000 in holding in 2001; now it's triple that. Each year it rounds up mustangs and tries to sell them at auction to people who at least promise to take good care of them.But as horses have gotten more expensive to keep, fewer buyers turn up. Meanwhile, we've effectively banned horse slaughter here, but horses still get shipped to Mexico and Canada for butchering. So the BLM has astoundingly been paying $23 million a year to keep its captured horses. The GAO says these costs are rising unsustainably and are projected to reach $77 million by 2012. So, the BLM, not wanting to let more (or even the same amount of) horses roam free, would be left the alternatives of euthanizing the horses or allowing them to be bought by people who will ship them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter.

The BLM says the problem with Pickens Plan is that it says horses can only stay on government land where they were in 1971. And she wants to put horses in part on federal land where they weren't in 1971 -- on land used for cattle. As Las Vegas columnist George Knapp put it: "Change cattle land to horse land? Why, harumph, that's impossible." You can bet those lands had wild horses some time before 1971.

The other problem is Pickens is now saying that she needs about $500 a year per head to feed the horses. That is a significant difference from what she said in the fall. But the BLM's Boyd Spratling has been going around saying "that's more than what the BLM already pays for wild horses in long-term care, mostly in Kansas and Oklahoma." Yeah, taxpayers are only paying $475 a year to keep the horses there. Quite a bargain. But what Spratling is conspicuously leaving out is that those are the long-term horses (which account for only one-third of the BLM's outrageous horse-penning costs) and they're in holding pens, from Pete's sake.

If it were just a $25 a head, don't you think we as Americans would rather have a symbol of the West roaming free? But it's not even that we'd have to spend $25 more for Pickens plan. What Spratling disingenuously left out is that we are paying about $2,000 a head to keep about 9,000 wild horses in short-term holding. We're now spending roughly an average of $750 a year for wild horse holding.

So Pickens estimates that she's going to save taxpayers $700 million by 2020. I'm not thrilled that this $500 per head cost didn't come up in the fall. She says she was expecting to raise more from private donors, but the sudden recession put an end to that. I think the $700 million foresees a future where the BLM management just continues blindly as it is, defying science and the American public. But I'd like to think our last election put an end to that. I don't think the Pickens plan is going to save us close to $1 billion, but clearly the BLM is not up to the task of managing our wild horses or our tax money.

Managing the wild horses isn't just about pinching pennies. If Pickens or any other horse group can take care of our American wild horses for what the BLM is spending now, let's let them try. The ASPCA and other pro-horse groups are asking everyone to write Congress to support the Pickens plan.

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