As the wife of a billionaire and a wealthy woman in her own right, Madeleine Pickens is accustomed to traveling in limos and private jets. But this afternoon, she is bumping along in a rusty pickup truck. The truck halts in the middle of a sagebrush valley. Nearby, a broad mountain shifts in color from ochre to indigo in the fading afternoon light.
Pickens, 64, a petite blonde in a fringed buckskin jacket and matching boots, jumps from the truck and points to a low thundercloud of dust moving across the valley. It's a galloping herd of mustangs, tan and black and pinto, their manes streaming like water. Soon, the earth is drumming with their hoofbeats. "These horses were going to the slaughterhouse," she says, admiring the racing herd, "and so I brought them to my ranch, where they can run wild."
Her giant ranch, in northeastern Nevada, is spread across three valleys and two mountain ranges, and Pickens intends to turn it all into a wild-horse sanctuary, or as she calls it, Mustang Monument. The first arrivals are 500 horses she bought from a Paiute Indian reservation. The horses, she says, would otherwise have been slaughtered across the border.
The trouble is, many of Nevada's ranchers look upon wild horses as vermin, chomping grass that is meant for their cattle. These ranchers say they are afraid that Pickens, who is married to energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, will lead a stampede of "touchy-feely" millionaire horse lovers who will start buying up pastures to save the pretty horses. And this, they insist, may run the cattlemen out of business.
Pickens may have money and high connections, but she is confronting powerful forces. The cattle ranchers, according to Chris Heyde, deputy director of the Animal Welfare Institute, an animal-rights group in Washington, have an "absolute choke hold on the state legislature in Nevada." The ranchers are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to push through a bill that would bar wild horses from having access to water condemning them to die of thirst. In the U.S. Congress, the cattlemen have allies among legislators from 21 farm states and the influential agricultural lobby.
Nobody can dictate to ranchers if they want to raise cows or kangaroos on their own land. But in Nevada's high deserts and extreme weather, most ranches are granted access to vast tracts of federal land for grazing. Pickens' original spread of 28 sq. mi. (72.5 sq km) gives her access to another 875 sq. mi. (2,266 sq km) of federal grazing land. And it is this public land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that has become the battleground for Pickens and the cattlemen.
Pickens envisions Mustang Monument with a museum and lodging for visitors in futuristic teepee villages beside a creek from where they can view the roaming mustangs. Because her horse sanctuary will partly be on federal land, and because she is angling for federal help to keep the refuge running long after she is gone, Pickens needs approval from the BLM. So far, the agency has been slow to respond. Animal-rights advocate Heyde says the federal bureaucracy is lassoed to the cattlemen's interests, and has been "trying to tie Ms. Pickens' applications in knots." The BLM says it is studying Pickens' proposals before making a decision on whether to help her sanctuary.
Caught in the middle is Pickens' ranch manager, Clay Nannini, a rangy ex-rodeo cowboy from Wells, Nev., who is as adept with his smart phone as he is with his lariat. "Some of the local ranchers could care less, some are in favor, but mostly they're opposed to what Ms. Pickens is trying to do," he says with a shrug. "People I've been involved with all my life are giving me the bird and walking away."