Fighting for Wild Horses: Inside a House Subcommittee Hearing

Friday, April 29, 2011 - 3:45pm

Guest Blog by Betsy Dribben, ASPCA Vice President of Federal Affairs. Betsy Dribben is an attorney who has worked as a staff member in both the U.S. House and Senate. She currently lobbies Capitol Hill on federal issues for the ASPCA.

At recent hearings of public witnesses held by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies focused on a wide range of proposed federal budget cuts and how deep they would go. At first, the room was a sea of dark suits—until Ms. Madeleine Pickens, a petite woman with long blonde hair dressed in country and western style garb, along with her supporters in Native American dress, plunged into the buttoned-down crowd. Madeleine Pickens, head of Saving America’s Mustangs Foundation, brought passion to her testimony, which was not so much on budget cuts as it was an articulate expression of her frustration with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Pickens has proposed a plan to work with the U.S. government to move herds of wild horses to her Nevada acreage for ecotourism purposes. However, the BLM’s negotiations with her have yielded no results in favor of saving wild horses and burros.

Along with her were two wounded warriors, their service dogs by their side. Ms. Pickens referred to those who had come before her asking for funding for historical monuments. “How have these national living symbols of American history [the horses] been devalued as less deserving than a National Historic Stone Monument?” she asked Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID), Ranking Member Jim Moran (D-VA) and others. She warned that the cost of confining wild horses is “out of control” and that the BLM’s current program of roundups and holding pens was “not sustainable.” Then, in a dramatic gesture, she pointed to the large packing cartons she’d brought along: “These are some 72,000 emails from the public stating how horrified they are about what BLM is doing.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) politely but firmly took on Pickens as she finished her comments. “You are very reverent about horses,” she said, “but there are so many horses destroying grass resources needed by other species like elk. Those horses are feral to this land. They tamp the land down with their solid hooves. And when it rains, that tamped down soil causes water to run off.”

If she was expecting a soft-spoken response from Ms. Pickens, she got just the opposite. “All this stuff about desecrating the land, where does it come from?” Pickens firmly inquired. It was clear from her statement and body language that she was not buying Rep. Lummis’ argument.

 With very little time left before the Subcommittee had to leave the hearing, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) weighed in. In a strong voice, he warned “These horse roundups and holdings are costing the U.S. government tons of money. In early years it was $20 million, and now it’s up to $70 million. Ms. Pickens has had an idea on the table for three years, and no one at the BLM wanted to listen.”

He also weighed in on Rep. Lummis’ comments: “As Ms. Pickens said, ‘to say that the horses are doing damage to the ecosystem stretches credulity.’”  

For more on Saving America’s Mustangs Foundation and its wild horses plan, please visit