Laura Leigh

Happy Anniversary, WFRH&B Act

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Nevada wild horses, post roundup (not captured, a stud and a young filly)

Forty-five years ago the  Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFRH&B Act) was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 18, 1971 (approved on December 15). This law landed on Nixon’s desk after passing both the House and Senate (June 19, 1971) unanimously.

Today is seen as the “anniversary” of the Act to protect wild horses and burros on public land.

The WFRH&B Act created the sensation that wild horses were now protected on public land, but did not create actual defined parameters. Much of this law was an intention statement, rather than clear direction. Like most laws the practical application of the intention is left to imposition by competing law, lack of clear enforcement and to interpretation  by the US judicial system.

“Many people misinterpret the language of the Act because they repeat what they hear in soundbite and have never even read it,” said Laura Leigh, WHE founder, “The Act essentially established jurisdiction, said management must be humane and then left a broad discretion to create management. Management framework that represents the true intention was never created. Where does that responsibility lie? Across the board.”

We urge you to read:

Immediately after the passage of the Act work began to undercut any protections by those that resented any federal interference, namely those that profited from “mustanging.” Mustanging was a practice where ranchers and others that lived in the West would literally run down wild horses through brutal methods, and either kill them outright or catch them in any way they could, and ship them to render. Wild horses were turned into dog food and fertilizer putting fast cash into the pockets of the perpetrator, without any regulation from state or federal authorities.

The American public felt the federal law protected wild horses. The real work to engage and define management practices never happened.


Velma at Stone Cabin

Velma Johnston, “wild horse Annie,” was one of the lead advocates in the fight to gain federal jurisdiction. Jurisdiction had to be established that could create laws and practices that protected this animal so important to the history of our nation and dear to the hearts of all Americans. An animal that ranged over American public land, a resilient survivor, that represented the spirit of the people and the land. Velma died shortly after the first roundup of wild horses under the Act at Stone Cabin, essentially her work died with her. PLEASE READ An Apology to Velma

A splintered and competitive “advocacy” created perhaps the greatest roadblocks of all as opposition remained united. A huge push to resume mustanging, for the federal government to issue permits to locals, began after the “claiming period.” The claiming period ran from 1971-1975, essentially mustanging continued after the law was passed with over 17,000 free roaming horses claimed in Nevada alone during that time.

The “numbers game” we are faced with today was born. In 1971 Congress declared the wild horse “fast disappearing” from the landscape, yet the numbers asserted at that very moment have become the goal of the agency tasked with management, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). “Carrying capacity” has very little to do with science and preservation of the resource that is the “wild horse,” and everything to do with politics.

During that claiming period the “you wont interfere with me” push went into full swing.

Today there are areas like the Elko district in Nevada that did a great job of eradicating horses “on the land they now stand” through a paper politics game of intimidation and “favors,” or from outright slaughter. Over the years we have interviewed some old “mustangers” that talk about how they were hired to shoot horses in those days because “be damned if the federal government will interfere with me.”


Antelope Complex (Ely and Elko districts in NV)

In some areas we have huge complexes that contain massive tracks of public land and legal herd management areas (HMA). Oddly we have public land allotments that belonged to politically powerful ranching families of the day that are considered “off HMA,” or “not horse areas,” even though these areas contain “trespass” wild horses on an annual basis (indicating how absurd this literal “turf war” is in any assertion of accuracy based on truth).

The federal government began a push that simply “removes and stockpiles” as they try to reach a number that keeps wild horses on the verge of “fast disappearing.” Nature fights back and increases reproduction. The pickle we are in has been perpetuated by a system based on politics, not common sense and any assertion of “fair practices.”

Today the lack of factual engagement based on integrity of practice is the root cause of all the problems our wild ones face. It is up to us to create that accountability.

2017 promises to see every aspect of the turf war escalate as environmental protections (water, air and endangered species) face increased threats in a political climate run not for building a legacy of preserving our nation, but to exploit it for profit. Our wild horses are caught in a truly deranged war that is intent on hiding the roots of corruption as it races to literally sell off public land to the highest private bidder, because that is the push if States take over federal resource.

The tasks ahead are immense in the broken frame. A comprehensive frame that removes the corruption the current one hangs on must be built at the same time as we fight to maintain the intention that federal jurisdiction represents.

“An educated advocacy is more important than ever.”


December 13th was the National Day of the Horse. December 15th the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRH&B Act) was approved. December 18th the WFRH&B Act was signed into law.

We renew our commitment to recognize the truth of the past, the truth of today and fight to build a future based on the truth of the wild horse… and see them protected and preserved, humanely, as the WFRH&B Act intended on public land, to represent all we once thought we were. Perhaps our American soul depends on it?


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Owyhee (Elko side) 2016

Video created 4 years ago, skip to timecode 2:00 for video to begin.