Wild Horse Education

The Wild in Wild Horses, the land they stand on (public land seizure movement, segment two)

This is a continuation of a piece begun at this link, segment one. Please read the preface piece.

“Wild horses are the only animal in our country legally defined by where they stand, not what they are. Wild horses as a ‘living symbol of the (pioneer) spirit of the West’ literally carry the history of the land they stand upon within their legal identity. This fact makes wild horse management the most vulnerable of all to public land policy and the whims of any political climate.”


Wild horses, 2017

Public land management has a long, complex and often volatile history (part one). Wild horses and burros are a very small fraction of the actual overall equation; both fiscally and physically. Yet the complexity, confusion and volatility seem to escalate rapidly, almost disproportionately, in any discussion.

Is it by design? If you subscribe to any “intention theory” you would have to determine motive prior to making a determination of any perpetrator. If you uncover that complexity, confusion and volatility suit multiple agendas, you have multiple perpetrators and one victim, the wild horse (by definition that includes the land they stand on).

Part one continued…. end of part one, “Often these “alt truths” were spread through the creation of public relations farms paid to  influence the impression of reality… to forward that political agenda to remove regulations to the exploitation that, in the 70’s, we recognized would literally kill us.”

In the midst of this push/pull we worked for access to witness roundups and holding facilities. We worked to gain a humane handling policy. We worked to try to get a seat at the bizarre table of “management.” We won multiple court rulings and aided numerous media outlets on public land and “wild horse stories.”  The entire time the landscape traveled for the work, existed in the larger picture of public land; participants and observers, range, law, politics, people.

The last piece gave you a glimpse into some of the structure of the political landscape of public land through 2015, a glimpse. You can see that in 1978 there was a political backlash to environmental regulations in the archived article published in High Country News.

In context of the first segment we are going to give you a run-down on some of the points that are wild horse centric.

On September 8, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Hunting Wild Horses and Burros on Public Lands Act, also known as the “Wild Horse Annie Act,” which prohibited capture of free-roaming horses on federal land from aircraft or motorized vehicles and the poisoning of water sources to kill them. This law had very little, if any, enforcement. The employees of the former “Federal Grazing Service,” that only began it’s identity as the BLM in 1946 with no “multiple use” mission until 1976, were not exactly willing partners in enforcement.

December 18, 1971 the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law (at the same time as other legal frames were created for environmental protections). It was estimated that populations of wild horses and burros had declined to less than 30,000 individuals. (Remember at the time of the Taylor Grazing Act populations of wild horses were estimated at anywhere from 50,000-150,000, not including burros).

From the time of the passage of the Act (1971-74) there was a “claiming period.” Ranchers claimed that many of the horses on public land were their personal property, yet unbranded. Essentially mustanging continued to operate on public land in a grey zone. The paperwork is incomplete, filled with conjecture and depending on what side of the fence you sit on either “not a factor” or a massive impact to “what comes next in the numbers game.” Paperwork indicates over 30,000 wild horses were claimed as private property in the West.

In 1975 the first capture of wild horses took place at Stone Cabin; horses are “starving and overpopulated” and therefore they need to be removed. The case had an all too familiar ring to it. The state claimed the feds had no right to remove the horses and wanted to take them to the kill auction (the claiming period had just ended). Advocates said BLM was removing horses but not limiting the cows that vastly outnumbered the horses. The court said, ““This Court is not saying that the BLM is free to round up wild horses whenever a particular range has an overgrazing problem. Nor is the Court saying that every time the removal of wild horses will have a limited, slightly positive effect on the environment of the range, the BLM can proceed to remove a certain number of those horses. BLM officials admit that more round-ups of wild horses may be necessary in the future. This Court decides only that the Stone Cabin Valley round up currently underway may continue as an interim measure to preserve the range until the EIS required by Judge Flannery is filed in 1977.” (you can read more in “Perspective.”)

Velma Johnston, “Wild Horse Annie,” was present. She was working on starting the “foster” program for wild horses that later became the “adopt-a-horse” program, begun 2 years earlier at the Pryor Mountain (Range). She could not attend alone, young Alan Kania went with her. She was receiving death threats from ranchers and had even found herself on Charles Manson’s hit list for trying to work with the federal government. (you can read more in “Apology.”)

In 1976 the WFRH&B Act was amended to allow the use of helicopters (not planes) to operate at roundups under pressure from the livestock industry to allow permitted “mustanging,” or the program to be given over to states. The first contract awarded to Cattoor livestock.

In 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) was signed into law creating the phrase “multiple use.”

The first “census” of wild horses and their habitat is completed. “I have looked at some of the documentation and it makes no logical sense. As an example horses could be noted (in what can only be called a “what you see out of the windshield of your truck” survey) standing on a valley floor yet the boundaries of the area later drawn as the legal territory for the horses do not include that valley. The rest of the info, in a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2011 has never been provided.”

In 1978 Velma died.

“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 the time of Velma’s death the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA) was signed into law.  The language in PRIA further amended the WFRH&B Act to require inventories that identified “optimum” population levels and establish legal boundaries (what has become the herd management areas,  or HMAs, of today). However the term “optimum” lacks clear definition. PRIA requires BLM to coordinate with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and others (section 14).

The “Game of AML” begins. (reference linked here part one, part two, part three in progress).

In 1980 the NAS was tasked with compiling an outline to fill in the needed gaps in knowledge to create a science based determination for management of wild horses and burros on public land. These recommendations reflect the exact same actual data, not conjecture, missing in todays management practices. Identification of actual use patterns, critical habitat, unique genetic structure of each herd, behavior, distinct foraging patterns from other species (including the domestic European cow that vastly outnumbers any species inhabiting the West), on and on and on.

“A windshield survey that does not include the valley in legal boundaries where some horses actually stood, and a recommendation to only manage horses in one area of a 10.5 million acre district that actually had more wild horses than most states, is an abomination not a scientific recommendation under the multiple use mandate of FLPMA, the parameters of PRIA, the WFRH&B Act or any sense of moral decency. It’s a nod to the permittee you are either related to or drink beer with.”

The NAS was tasked again and again to outline research needs and review the program. Each report essentially outlines the identical deficits.

In 2013 the National Academy of Sciences created another report. A bit of context on the report before we begin segment three here: https://wildhorseeducation.org/2016/04/06/nas-report-a-bit-of-context/


For the purpose of this piece please read segment one:  https://wildhorseeducation.org/2017/09/16/the-wild-in-wild-horses-the-land-they-stand-on-timeline-public-land-seizure-movement/

All of the articles in this series linked here: https://wildhorseeducation.org/wild-wild-horses-and-the-public-land-seizure-movement/

In segment four we are going to discuss how reality and “alt reality” clash from 2009 forward to create the “bullet in the head” in the current budget bill debate and the massive public land challenges faced today.

We will link segment three here when complete.



Categories: Wild Horse Education