I-Team: Madeleine Pickens' Mustang Monument in jeopardy

LAS VEGAS - Dozens of formerly wild mustangs have been located and rounded up, several days after vandals destroyed fencing and water supplies at a Nevada horse sanctuary.

The horses live on a $25 million eco-sanctuary called the Mustang Monument, whose founder is now saying the facility may never re-open again.

Madeleine Pickens says she is thankful to the employees of the state agricultural department. They're the ones who found about 50 mustangs.

The horses were previously in a 13,000 acre fenced range with plenty of food and water but unknown persons trespassed on the property a few weeks ago, cut the fences, and disabled all the water supplies which left a dozen horses dead and the rest missing.

State officials investigating the crime found the missing herd on another Elko ranch. They will be returned to the Mustang Monument. 

After spending millions to turn the sanctuary into a tourist attraction, Pickens isn't sure what the future holds, in part, because of opposition she's faces from the same agency which encouraged her to open in the first place.

When she began her search for ranch property in Nevada back in 2008, Madeleine Pickens had high hopes. She wanted to create a sanctuary for thousands of wild mustangs and establish a model that might give the BLM a way out of its woeful management of horses on public lands.

The BLM didn't like the first ranch she chose, so she spent $6 million to buy two others in Elko County south of Wells, more than 20,000 deeded acres, and nearly 600,000 acres of public allotments attached. BLM documents show Pickens was prepared to take 30,000 wild horses out of government pens.

Pickens and her team say they not only had the backing of members of Congress, but also the head of the BLM itself.

"Plus they were excited about it and he told everybody at the wild horse and burro meeting that I was doing this project. He shook my hand and said thank you very much," Pickens said.

"I was there, with other members of the team, and he made assurances to Madeleine that it was a great project and that they would support her," Jerry Reynoldson said.

The ranches she bought were located in beautiful country but had been neglected and overgrazed for decades. Pickens jumped through every hoop BLM put up, spent millions more to restore the ranch structures, along with a few dozen wells and springs over the vast range so that she could grow enough hay to feed her mustangs and still lease out some land to other cattle ranchers, an income source that would mean her foundation could be financially self-sufficient forever. 

But along the way, the BLM changed its tune. First it asked that Pickens suspend all grazing for three years so the range could recover. She agreed. BLM said it would require a comprehensive study of her allotment even though the bureau has been managing this same range since the agency was created. BLM documents show such a study would take 18 months. Seven years later, Pickens is still waiting for BLM to finish it.

"You've been studying this land the entire life of BLM management. If you don't know what's going on here, no study is going to help you," Pickens said.

The BLM model has always been the same. Round up mustangs by the thousands -- operations in which many horses are killed or injured -- then ship them off to expensive storage facilities in other states to spend the rest of their lives.

Internal documents from BLM show the agency concluded years ago that the Pickens model would save the taxpayers more than $100 million, but it hasn't allowed a single horse to be transferred to her operation. Pickens bought a herd of more than 600 mustangs that were bound for a slaughterhouse. BLM won't allow them on any of the 600,000 public acres, so Pickens takes care of them on her deeded acres, or did until vandals trespassed onto her property, slashed her fences, and disabled all the water for a herd in the Goshute Valley.

Pickens says she doesn't expect much from the official investigation into the crime, and has concluded the BLM will never allow her eco-sanctuary to open.

"They keep moving the finish line, while saying this, and how do you work with people like that?"

The I-Team filed a Freedom of Information with the BLM to obtain internal documents which migh show why the Pickens project has been stymied for so long. 

A reward of $100,000 is still being offered for information about the vandals.


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