50 years after Wild Horse and Burro Act enacted, spirit that led to law remains

/ Staff Blog, Wild Horses

Photo taken at RTF’s San Luis Obispo, Calif., satellite sanctuary by Meg Frederick.

Today, December 15, marks the 50thanniversary of the enactment of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (Public Law 92-195). Two days later, on Dec. 17, President Nixon issued a signing statement in which he said that he took “special pleasure … in signing strong new legislation to protect these noble animals.”

In honor of the Act’s anniversary, we’ll be taking a three-day look on our website at the history of wild horses, the passage of the law and the challenges wild horses face now, and the solution that RTF supports in order to move how wild horses and burros are managed in a direction Americans can take pride in.

Propelled by a wave of public sentiment, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed unanimously by Congress, which declared that “wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”

At its most basic level, the Act has been a success: Wild horses and burros, of which there were an estimated 17,000 left when President Nixon signed the bill into law, remain on our public lands. The Bureau of Land Management estimated there were 86,189 on the BLM-managed public lands in March of this year.

But for all its good intentions, the new law did not set up a humane, forward-looking management plan for wild horses. Instead, it handed broad authority to set population targets and maintain them to the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.

Congress further complicated matters in 1976 when it mandated that our public lands be managed for multiple uses: not just wild horses, burros and other wildlife, but livestock grazing, energy extraction and public recreation.

In the years since its passage, the Act has also been amended – some would say gutted — to allow for the use of helicopters for rounding up and transporting horses, to define “excess animals”: those that must be removed to preserve a “thriving ecological balance” in multiple-use areas, to allow the sale without limitation of wild horses more than 10 years of age or that have been offered unsuccessfully for adoption three times.

Although we celebrate the spirit and intent of the Act, it is difficult to fully embrace this legislation:

  • when wild horse habitat has been stripped by 15.5 million acres since the Act’s passage;
  • when BLM and USFS continue to rely on often deadly helicopter roundups to manage numbers, tearing apart family bands and herds, instead of using the most minimally intrusive management necessary to protect the freedom of our wild horses and burros on their ranges. For more than two decades safe, proven and humane fertility control has been available to stabilize herd growth yet BLM has never even allocated 4% of its budget to this progressive and humane alternative to its aggressive capture-and-removal management paradigm;
  • when this antiquated management policy has resulted in more than 58,000 wild horses and burros warehoused in off-ranging holding corrals and pastures;
  • when incentive programs and sales keep our once wild and free horses and burros vulnerable to the slaughter pipeline;
  • when government agencies routinely allocate the least amount of resources to wild horses and burros, which are outnumbered by livestock even in the areas set aside for them;
  • and when a promise that was made to the horses and burros that helped build this nation has been broken.

And yet –

The Act is a touchstone for a growing number of people not just in the United States but around the world who are emotionally invested in this issue. The Act’s intent — ensuring wild herds remain on our public lands — has not been erased from law.

Wild horses and burros, these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” that “enrich the lives of the American people,” still live on remote, fragile rangelands and in our hearts.

That you are reading this message, that you keep sending letters to Washington, D.C., and that you help us provide sanctuary for hundreds of wild horses and burros displaced by government roundups — all of that is proof positive that you, like us, believe that the protection and preservation of wild horses remain worth the fight.

Part One: Read about the history of America’s wild horses.

Take Action: 8 Ways to help America’s horses