This week marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (Public Law 92-195). The law may well have spared wild horses and burros from vanishing from the Western landscape, but it also placed wild horses and burros at the center of an ongoing struggle for the use of resources on our public lands. As we celebrate the passage of the Act, we’ve taken a look at the history of wild horses before the Act and now we’ll discuss its passage and what’s come since.
It is now the stuff of wild horse advocacy lore: In 1950, a secretary named Velma Bronn Johnston driving to work at a Reno insurance company saw blood coming from the back of a stock truck. She’d come to find a tangle of mustangs inside, on their way to slaughter. On that day, she set out to save Nevada’s remaining wild horses.
Within a few years, she’d forged the beginnings of a national movement. She’d be the subject of a best-selling children’s book and newspaper and magazine features.
At that time, small operations employed airplanes to round up wild horses. They made money from meatpackers who wanted the horses and ranchers who did not want them there.
In 1955, Johnston – nicknamed Wild Horse Annie by her detractors – succeeded in passing a ban on mechanized wild horse hunts in Nevada, but not before a provision was included to ensure it wasn’t applicable on the federal land that makes up nine-tenths of the state.
Four years later, in 1959, she led the charge for a federal law banning aerial roundups on federal land, only to see mustangers get around that law by releasing branded animals as an excuse to round up horses, all with the backing of local Bureau of Land Management managers.
And so it was in 1971 that — backed by animal-welfare groups, a growing environmental movement and an army of children — Johnston returned to Washington intent on saving the wild horse from extinction. By then, the number of wild horses and burros had dwindled to an officially estimated 17,000 on federally managed public lands in 10 Western states.
Her efforts paid off: Congress unanimously passed the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The law 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.”
The 1971 Act provided a measure of protection for the animals but it failed to set up a real management plan for the future of wild herds.
Subsequent amendments to the law allow for: the use of helicopters and motor vehicles for rounding up and transporting horses, a definition of “excess animals”: those that must be removed to preserve a “thriving ecological balance” in multiple-use areas, the adoption of wild horses and burros to private parties, and the sale without limitation of “excess” animals more than 10 years of age or that had been offered unsuccessfully for adoption three times.
The last of these, the so-called Burns Amendment, slipped into a spending bill at the last minute, places wild horses and burros at greater jeopardy of being sold to slaughter, though Congress has repeatedly passed appropriations language barring the BLM from killing healthy horses or selling them without restriction (to slaughter).
Wild horse habitat has decreased by 41% since 1971, including a net loss of 15.5 million acres of BLM land once designated for wild horses and burros. Today, wild horses and burros are managed on BLM Herd Management Areas and USFS Wild Horse Territories that comprise 31.6 million acres, of which 26.9 million acres are under BLM management.
BLM has set its total nationwide population target, or “Appropriate Management Level,” at just 26,785 wild horses and burros — fewer than 10,000 more than when Congress declared them to be “fast disappearing.” These Appropriate Management Levels are viewed by advocates as arbitrarily set. A 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that AMLs were not based on rigorous science.
BLM and USFS have attempted to manage wild horse numbers almost entirely through controversial and often deadly helicopter roundups and removals.
Fast forward 50 years from the passage of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act: The number of wild horses and burros on BLM-managed lands has grown to an agency-estimated 86,189 (as of March 2021) with another 58,063 (as of November 2021) removed from the range languishing in government corrals or living on leased or public pasturelands. The cost of BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program has swelled to more than $100 million annually.
Frustrated by population growth on and off the range despite the growing cost of BLM’s program, the House of Representatives Interior Appropriations Committee voted in 2017 to allow BLM to euthanize tens of thousands of captive wild horses and burros. After a huge lobbying effort by Return to Freedom, colleague organizations and their supporters, a handful of senators saved the horses.
But the lawmakers’ message was clear: the can could no longer be kicked down the road, something had to be done and fast. They suggested that wild horse advocates find some mutual common ground with other public land stakeholders if advocates hoped for non-lethal solutions.
A subsequent effort by RTF, animal-welfare organizations and other rangeland stakeholders attempted to offer Congress a way to move BLM’s program away from calls for lethal tools and roundups through the immediate use of safe, proven and humane fertility control to slow herd growth. With wild horse populations increasing, BLM preparing to remove larger numbers of horses and growing concern for the fate of the horses, appropriators supported the idea.
Unfortunately, BLM issued a report to Congress in 2020 laying out management featuring aggressive roundups to reach its population targets first and only then implement fertility control, setting the stage for BLM to continue removing wild horses while failing to address reproduction.
In almost all instances, BLM is removing additional wild horses from their home ranges without treating mares with fertility control, then releasing them – guaranteeing that helicopters will soon return to the same places to remove more wild horses at taxpayer expense, putting more captured horses at risk of falling into the foreign slaughter pipeline through failed adoptions and sales. In 2019, an Adoption Incentive Program was also put in place to support increased adoptions, which resulted in adopters pocketing the cash, then dumping the horses into sale yards.
All the while, the BLM and USFS have largely ignored a key tool long advocated for by RTF since 2003 that would allow wild horses and burros to be managed on the home ranges: fertility control, which would slow reproduction without stopping it.
Coming tomorrow: Read about the unused tool that could replace wild horse and burro roundups.