Wild Horse Education

Velma Johnston, An Apology


Velma, in hat and glasses, at the first removal of wild horses under federal jurisdiction

On September 8, 1959, the campaign Velma Johnston began resulted in the federal legislature passing Public Law 86-234 which banned air and land vehicles from hunting and capturing free-roaming horses, and the poisoning of water holes, on federal land. This became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act.

Johnston continued her campaign and in 1971, the 92nd United States Congress unanimously passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

The Act has been amended several times. None of the amendments benefited wild horses, only those that lobbied Congress to continue to exploit the land and the wild horse and burro.

If you truly want to understand what is happening today to wild horses and burros, read this book. The names and dates, a few circumstances, have changed from yesterday. Today the political infighting, backstabbing, exploitation, manipulation of the range to suit profit lines, all remains identical. (more HERE)

“I can’t believe how bad it has gotten,” is a statement we have received in comment after comment referencing todays political push in Congress, joined by certain “advocates.” We are sad to say, it has always been this way.

Order HERE.

EDIT: Since the writing of this piece the author of the book and Leigh have had contact. The book Leigh notes in this article has the unfortunate reputation of being the “least-read book,” in spite of great revues. Leigh said she chose this book to read because she had not seen it used as a gimmick by orgs looking to profit from it. She also notes that what Alan Kania has written to her, will be cherished. Link to the book on Amazon, click here.

An apology, LLeigh

I came into wild horse advocacy without being a “wild horse centric” person. I had worked horse slaughter issues for quite a while. But wild horses literally grabbed me one day in a feedlot through the eyes of an old mustang that the kill buyer would not let me purchase for a thousand bucks because he had to make weight on his shipment. I simply set off to find that story.

When I physically arrived in Nevada, the heart of wild horse country, I fell into the culture of advocacy. My frustrations were too many to list here. But ultimately those frustrations became the driving force for the creation and work of this organization.

The words “Wild Horse Annie” became synonymous with the “clique factor” in advocacy to me. A woman wearing what I can only refer to as a “tu tu” and fashionable, not functional, “cowboy” boots spoke about making an “Annie movie” at a rally and I watched advocates swoon. People would throw the name around saying this or that organization carried on her work. I was told I needed to read about her.

With everything I saw in advocacy I felt if everyone was carrying on her work, yet things were so dang bad for the horses, what could possibly be gained from reading about her? I included a few things about her on the website and paid tribute to the pioneer, but I never looked to see who she was.

Velma, I’m sorry. There was a lot I could have learned and time was wasted. I had to learn all those lessons myself, the hard way.

This past Christmas I was gifted a card to use for books. I purchased range assessment manuals, copies of GAO reports, history of livestock management and law volumes. I had a few bucks left and there was a used copy of Wild Horse Annie, Velma Johnston and her fight to save the mustang by Alan J. Kania. I bought it.

Of course I read the GAO reports and law books first. However I was feeling really lost one night. There was no one I could turn to and say “This is really insane and our horses are really in trouble. What do I do next?”

I randomly opened the book and read, not thinking it was worth the time to read cover to cover. I wept.

The battle today has different landmarks but so much has remained exactly the same. Velma, the book said she used the nickname “Wild Horse Annie” but did not really like it but it was a reminder of the need to “fight,” fought against the rampant abuse of “mustanging” and to gain federal jurisdiction of wild horses and burros on public land. She did that, successfully. She fought for an adoption program. That happened too. Her goals were then fair and equitable management on the range. That has never happened.

At WHE we fought and won cases to gain a humane handling policy. It has happened. We fought for access. We won that too. We got the “sale authority” contracts tightened, but still more work to address all those that want horses slaughtered. We are fighting for far and equitable management. Not there yet.

But those two paragraphs above in no way reflect the daily reality faced in fighting to save our wild ones from abuse, slaughter and to gain fair management. The devils live in the details. The playing field of law is set up to cater to uses that reap large profits off of public land. Wild horses have the intention of legal protection, but the work to define it has never been done. That in itself is a massive task. But throw in the drama  of advocacy? The task becomes soul crushing.

Velma was angry near the time of her death. (note Velma’s org WHOA! went under. Her org does not exist today). The quote below is from a letter Velma penned after another organization literally swooped in and took over what she was working on. This letter was penned shortly before her death.

“I’m damned if I can overlook how WHOA! has been cut out of everything to do with the news media. There  is no intention of recognizing that anybody did anything but HSUS and AHPA, but we’ll see about that. Isn’t it awful why all of us, supposedly working toward the same goal, can’t deal fairly with each other? I’ve had several telephone calls… asking what WHOA! has been doing! And here, by God, had it not been for WHOA! the “heroes” would have nothing to be heroic about, and those damned ranchers would have gotten away with it. I’m biter. YUP.”

I read, I wept.

I kept reading. I randomly opened pages. I found an organization had shot a mare to claim a foal was an orphan for publicity and donations. I found organizations literally working against her fight to gain protection on the range as they made moves to start “sanctuary” at tax payer expense. The Nevada Department of Agriculture threatened to interfere with the removal of horses from Stone Cabin under federal jurisdiction wanting to send horses to slaughter. I read how “East Coast” organizations wrote letters to politicians, omitting Velma’s name, making it appear as if they did the work. I saw how a united livestock industry operated through threat and intimidation. I even read how Velma was on a “hit list” of Charles Manson because she was seen as cooperating with the federal government.

I read, I wept.

I read how her organization could not afford the public relations firms other organizations could. Therefore her organization could not afford the legal teams, the airfare, the field money. I read how her organization was rather broke at the time of her death. I read how her work all but died with her.

Near the end of the book my heart broke (remember core to her work was the first giant step, federal jurisdiction. She fought hard to get the federal government to have jurisdiction, not “disband the BLM.” The fight to define and hold them accountable belongs to those that follow).

“After Annie died, BLM director Robert Burford called all the wild horse and burro groups together for the purpose of providing an opportunity to meet directly with the BLM staff to share their views on how the wild horse and burro program should be implemented by the federal government. Each wild horse and burro group arrived in Denver with it’s own personal agenda; it was clear there was no consensus among the groups.”

Burford explained due to deteriorating range conditions a substantial removal would need to happen in 60 days.

“The unexpected announcement stunned many of the representatives of the attending groups; for others, the mandate sailed over their heads. Instead of uniting behind a common cause, each group went it’s separate direction. If they had joined together it would have been a formidable coalition to pick up where Wild Horse Annie left off.”

Later Burford said with a smile that he “had no idea what would happen.”

At that point the tears had dried up. The book almost flew through a window. I feel like gasoline. I am trying to stay away from “matches.”

That ultimatum thrown by Burford after Velma’s death? Get ready… it is gonna get worse.

Our range lands are deteriorating, open range is a myth. Livestock, mining and an environment of fear rule the West. Drama and public relations firms rule advocacy.

I owe you an apology Velma. I thought you were just a paper figure, like all the paper figures I have met. You were the “real deal.” I wish I could tell you that your legacy was boldly carried forth, I can’t. In 40 years barely anything has changed. But we did finally win that humane care policy. There is a lot of work to do. The human landscape has not changed much. I have lived very similar tales. However the wild ones are still there and they are strong.

This week I visited some of the herds you wrote about. Engaging.

February 2017. My personal story is different in specifics but context is alarmingly similar. At this point I share her anger expressed at the end of this book. I stand there… wondering if there is any integrity left, anywhere, as the threats to the safety of our wild ones increases daily.

“An educated advocacy is more important than ever!”


Read about what the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act did, and did not, do http://wildhorseeducation.org/2015/12/14/wfrhb-act/

In 1976 the WFRH&B Act was amended to allow helicopter use, Velma testified. Read about the first litigation under the Act and the first removal under federal jurisdiction http://wildhorseeducation.org/2014/09/15/perspective-1975-first-blm-wild-horse-capture/

Our main website WildHorseEducation.org

A release at Stone Cabin. Every time we see this video we think of you Velma. So much work to do. But the beautiful grey horses you love from Stone Cabin are still out there. The dangers they face today you could never have imagined, like fracking. We are still fighting to keep the herds in “public hands” and not given over to the permittees. We fight onward…

We thank you so much… so very much.


Categories: Wild Horse Education