Wild Horse Slaughter (SAFE, Burns, Budget)

In the world of wild horses there are two words that cause the most anxiety in advocacy: roundup and slaughter. Both of these subjects are products of failed on-range management. Roundups are the direct product of failures on range and easy to see the direct connection.

We are posting this article again due to the quantity of emails we are receiving about branded mustangs in kill auctions. The Adoption Incentive Program (AIP), that the agency has been saying is a “success at finding homes,” is a disaster. The program gives an incentive to adopt, a $1,000 payment. This is not a tax-deduction, it is a direct payment. The number of young branded mustangs heading for kill auction right after title, has increased.

The number of questions pertaining to wild horse slaughter has increased.

Wild horse slaughter, like many issues in the wild horse world, is convoluted. 

Addressing issues in on-range management (the beginning) and understanding the actual “legal language” at each juncture is crucial to effective advocacy. The same is true when addressing slaughter (the end). 

If you are just looking for the action items? scroll to the red text items near the bottom of the article. There are a total of four potential actions you can take in this piece. 

This article is long. However, we actually edited it down to include only the key items addressing todays “slaughter” issue. We have been noticing a lot of confusion in social media interactions. McDermitt

Wild Horse slaughter has different roots than domestic horse slaughter. 

The words “wild horse” are a legal term defined by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRH&BA) in 1971. The primary achievement of that legislation was to establish federal jurisdiction over free-roaming horses and burros that inhabited public lands.

In January 1959, Nevada Rep. Walter Baring introduced a bill prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on public lands and to stop the poisoning of water sources used by horses and burros. The “Wild Horse Annie Act” became Public Law 86-234 in Sept that year.

One of the greatest challenges with any law is enforcement. The 1959 law was not being enforced by federal or local authorities and “mustanging” continued. Mustanging, best illustrated in the movie “The Misfits,” continued its brutal practices, burros were shot, wild horses poisoned and run off cliffs to their deaths.

The 1971 law clearly established jurisdiction for enforcement.


When we are talking about advocacy, to create changes to reality, most often it involves changes to the law. When we are discussing any change to law the identification of jurisdiction is step one.

Free-roaming horses and burros in the US have many jurisdictions and the “legal identity” associated with those jurisdictions. Tribal horses are a private property issue. Wild horses and burros whose hooves stand on state land fall under state authority (example: Virginia Range).

Federal authority gets complicated.

When the 1971 Act was passed many agencies that managed federal public lands went into high gear and asserted that the missions goals for management under their jurisdiction did not require they recognize the mandate. They were successful in convincing Congress that they should not be held to the Act; United States Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) and National Parks Service (NPS). This left the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

To complicate federal jurisdiction just a bit more, the USFS sits in the hand of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the BLM in the hand of the Department of Interior (DOI). Many Americans think only the DOI manages public lands, the USDA also manages some of our public lands.

However, the vast majority of public lands, and wild horses and burros, are managed by the BLM. The BLM manages more horses and burros than all other state, tribal and federal jurisdictions combined. The entire land base managed by USFS is 193 million acres. The BLM administers more surface land (245 million acres or one-tenth of America’s land base) and more subsurface mineral estate (700 million acres) than any other government agency in the United States.

So when we are talking “wild horses and burros” we are talking about the BLM and the Department of Interior. Sometimes a herd will make the news that has a different jurisdiction, like Devils Garden (USFS) or Yakima (tribal, private property). Many tribes rely on allowing range breeding and sales to slaughter as income; this is a completely different situation than that horse with a BLM brand sitting in a killpen.


Gutting the Act

Shortly before the death of Velma Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) in 1977, those opposed to setting aside acreage “principally, but not exclusively” for wild horses and burros, and the shutting down of the fast cash made off mustanging, went to work.

In 1976 the Act was modified by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976. The modification added a “new” section 9 to the Act. This new section allowed for the use of helicopters and motor vehicles in rounding up and transporting captured animals. The alternative presented to Congress was to simply allow a permitted system for mustanging to resume. Advocacy of the day went along with allowing a federal system of capture that was mandated to protect wild horses from slaughter.

FLPMA of 1976 also coined the phrase “multiple use” changing any intention of the 1971 WFRH&B Act to set aside acreage where wild horses and burros would the primary inhabitant, even though the 1976 law clearly states it will not derogate, weaken, any existing law. BLM simply minimized the wild horse at the time and that absurd national stocking level (AML) of 26,000 was born by lobby groups, not range science.

In 1978, extensive amendments were made to the Act by the Public Rangeland Improvement Act (PRIA) of 1978. A new subsection 2 (f) “excess animals” was added. Excess animals meant animals which had been removed from the area by the Secretary pursuant to application of law or must be removed from an area to preserve and maintain a thriving ecological balance in the “multi-use areas.” Before PRIA, wild horses maintained their legal status for their entire life and were “fostered” by private parties, no title was ever transferred.

PRIA allowed for the adoption of free-roaming wild horses and burros to private parties, but not more than four animals a year (the beginning of the transfer of title, like a car). Once title was transferred the wild horse under law, became a domestic horse under law.

It is important to note that from the time of the enactment of the Act in 1971 through 2004, including the amendments in 1976 and 1978, the Act at all times provided that Congress formally protect these free-roaming wild horses and burros, and mandated that they cannot be sold or processed into commercial products, in effect, slaughtered.

Conrad Burns

The 1971 Act strictly forbade the sales of wild horses, under USFS and BLM, to be sold to slaughter.

Today, you will hear many pro-slaughter people claim that the original Act allowed slaughter, it did not. In 1987 a legal action was heard in the courtroom of the Honorable Howard J McKibben; while a wild horse maintains legal status as such, it can not be sold to slaughter and BLM can not sell a wild horse to people that express that purpose. The court clearly stated an understanding between “humane euthanasia” and slaughter being far from that definition.

In 2004 Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) introduced an amendment into the 2005 Omnibus spending bill, at the very last moment, that would make “sales without limits” legal. This bill was never introduced to Congress, never discussed or voted on. In fact most members of Congress did not know of its existence or insertion into this 3,000 page Omnibus Act. This bill amends Section 3 (16 USC §1331) of the original Act and changes the original law to allow sales to slaughter; 33 years of protection undone in one sneaky move.

There was an immediate move to repeal the amendment, but Conrad Burns ran the committee and squashed the effort to undo what he had done. In May, 2005 the “Rahall Amendment” was passed to limit implementation of the Burns amendment by preventing appropriated funds to be used to facilitate the sale and slaughter of protected wild horses and burros. We have continued to “defund” open sales without limits through Congressional action in spending bills every single year since, the Burns Amendment has not been removed (repealed).

Big multi-million dollar advocate lobby groups never pushed for a reintroduction of the repeal. Instead efforts were melded into attempts to pass the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act. SAFE has been introduced multiple times during the last decade and has not passed into law.

Passage of the SAFE Act is not the same as repealing the Burns Amendment. We have seen that assertion that “passage of SAFE repeals the Burns Amendment” multiple times on social media; it does not.

BA_1019 - 1 (44)

Wild horses in the Broken Arrow (aka Indian Lakes) facility that BLM had deemed simply an overflow facility they would use to receive wild horses already processed at other facilities. They made that claim to help facilitate keeping the doors shut to the public. Today BLM is using this facility as intake and still denying reasonable access. This facility is one of the facilities that shipped wild horses to Tom Davis, the family friend of former Sec of the Interior Ken Salazar; the tax payer even paid for shipping. The horses went to slaughter, nearly 1800 of them.

So what can we do to protect our wild horses from slaughter? 

Passage of the SAFE Act would protect wild horses after they lose their legal identity as “wild.” After title transfers (adoption or sale), wild horses are considered private property, domestics. The SAFE Act would prohibit transport of all domestic horses across state lines and internationally for the purpose of slaughter based on the use of products (medications, wormers, etc.) in animals not raised for human consumption.

UPDATE BILL NUMBER FOR 2023: The Save America’s Forgotten Equines (SAFE) Act, H.R. 3475, would permanently ban domestic horse slaughter in the U.S. and stop the export of American horses for slaughter abroad — practices that 80% of Americans support banning.

The Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act has been reintroduced into the 117th Congress. (and renamed Save Americas Forgotten Equines). Introduced in the House by Rep. Schakowsky, Janice D. [D-IL-9  the bill has been given the number HR 3475. As of yet, there is no corresponding number in the Senate (we will update you when there is a number).

You can find your reps in the House and call (or write) and ask that they cosponsor this important bill. Remember to call it by the full name. Last year there were several bills with the acronym “SAFE.”

Find your reps HERE

Call and say: “Put an end to transport of American horses for slaughter. Please support the SAFE Act (HR 3355) and support language in the infrastructure bill that prohibits transport to slaughter.” 

OR you can use this fast click and send letter HERE. 

Burns Amendment

The Burns Amendment, the rider slipped into the spending bill in 2004, opened up sales to slaughter (without limits) and created the “over ten is unadoptable” language and the “three-strikes” we have today.

Immediately after it was discovered that Burns snuck it in, an effort to repeal it began in H.R. 249 introduced by Rahall and Whitfield. The bill died in committee and language to “defund” the provisions of open sales to slaughter are fought for every single year. (you can read the House committee report on that bill here)

H.R. 249 needs to be reintroduced in some format and the language of the Burns Amendment stricken from the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. That action would directly protect wild horses and burros from slaughter by undoing the changes to the Act that permitted it. That change would “live in the law books” on public lands and make it illegal to sell, ship or slaughter a wild horse or burro under any circumstance, domestic or abroad. Passage of language represented in this bill would not be a patchwork with many cracks wild horses could slip through, it would do the job once and for all for our wild ones.

As election day draws closer, you can reach out to current candidates; call and find out if one is willing to reintroduce the bill to repeal the Burns Amendment and protect wild horses and burros from slaughter. Use Google or other search engine to find the people in your district running for office.  You can find your current representatives here.

You can send them the text of the of the original bill and make your request, “Will you introduce language to stop the slaughter of wild horses and burros?” and say you have a sample bill. (Note: This language is also being looked at to insert into other bills that are active and we will update you as we have more information.)

Original text:



To restore the prohibition on the commercial sale and slaughter of wild free-roaming horses and burros.

Mr. RAHALL (for himself and Mr. WHITFIELD) introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on _________________

To restore the prohibition on the commercial sale and slaughter of wild free-roaming horses and burros.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

(a) IN GENERAL – Section 3(d)(5) of Public Law 92-195 (16 U.S.C. 1333(d)(5)) is amended –
(1) by striking the period and inserting the following: “Provided, That no wild free-roaming horse or burro or its remains may be sold or transferred for consideration for processing into commercial products.”; and
(2) by striking subsection (e).
(b) CRIMINAL PROVISIONS.—Section (8)(a)(4) of Public Law 92-195 (16 U.S.C. 1338(a)(4)) is amended by striking “except as provided in section 3(e),”

What the bill means:

Prohibit sales of BLM wild horses and burros for purposes of rendering into any commercial products (e.g., they can’t be sold for slaughter.)
Repeal the section in the Burns rider that exempts the older animals and “three strikes” animals from the protection of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. (Those protections would again be in force.)
Repeal language eliminating criminal penalties for using wild horses and burros for unlawful commercial purposes.


Fueled by the debacle created by corporate lobbyists, representing extremely exploitative interests, we sit at a juncture where $21 million is set to be released in additional funding available in the 2020 budget to accelerate the roundup/sterilize machine. An additional push is being made to add that increase in funding to the 2021 spending bill.

However, the current budget requests will collapse the program. Herds on the range will be decimated. Every wild one in holding at risk.


Our teams are working on multiple issues. Our roundup teams are ready to roll to continue our fight against abuse (roundup schedule here).

You can take learn more and take action by clicking HERE.

You can also work to make sure the prohibition against open sales of wild horses to slaughter stays in place through the Appropriations process, more info HERE.

Wild horses and burros are a multi-layered public lands issue.

Wild horses and burros desperately need an educated and active advocacy working in each and every layer to protect and preserve this treasured American resource. 

Thank you! 


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Categories: Lead, Wild Horse Education