49 Years

The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFRH&B Act) (original text) was approved by President Nixon on December 15, 1971,  ceremonially signed in a press conference on December 18, 1971. Because of the differences in the dates, even the day the act itself becomes law represents a difference of opinion between officials and the public.

However, this law landed on Nixon’s desk after passing both the House and Senate unanimously. The American people had spoken. The wild horse was more than a fast cash crop to be slaughtered. The wild horse was an important symbol of freedom, of America herself.

Movie Still depicting mustanging from the movie “The Misfits” released Feb 1, 1961.

Why wasn’t this bill “The Free Roaming Horse Act?” Wild Burros populated several areas in the west after being an integral part of the mining industry that was a driving force in settling the American West. Unlike the the horse, whose fossil history demonstrated the North American continent as a birth place, the burros history traced to Africa. Early pioneers in advocacy saw creating one law to protect horses and burros on public lands as the only way to stop the outright brutality free-roaming burros were facing.

There was a clear point in time when the steps to include wild horses into the movement to create the Endangered Species Act (signed in December 1973), ended. Early pioneers in advocacy recognized the challenges they would face to protect wild horses by creating a distinct category under law; yet they saw no other way to help burros. From that moment on wild horses and wild burros became a distinct movement. In December of 1971 that movement came to fruition in Public Law 92-195 and federal jurisdiction began.

The WFRH&B Act was the first step to long term survival of wild horses and burros as part of the system of our publics lands. The Act was a doorway to stop mustanging, the rampant and brutal capture of wild horses. A fast cash crop in the west, selling wild horses off for chicken feed, pet food and fertilizer, became illegal as the Act established federal jurisdiction on public lands.

The first 5 years after the act passed there was a claiming period and mustanging essentially continued with claims being filed that the horses in area after area were private property. In the state of NV alone,  nearly 17,000 wild horses were claimed in a single year. Most of these claims had absolutely no proof of ownership except the word of the claimant. By 1975 BLM began to close the loophole stating that enough time had been provided for people to remove their property. (The lack of tracking and documentation during this claiming period wiped wild horses out of some of the areas “they presently stood” when the act passed invalidating any “boundary line” as science based.)

Velma Johnston, Wild Horse Annie, at the first formal roundup conducted on lands now governed under the 1971 Act.


In 1975 the first official removal, under the act, of wild horses from public land by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was planned. The removal took place at Stone Cabin Valley in the state of Nevada. The state tried to take custody of the horses claiming that the federal government had no jurisdiction and the horses needed to go to sale, litigation ensued. The Act was upheld and federal jurisdiction was upheld. Mustanging had officially ended and the “capture and disposition” of wild horses was now in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service. But there was more than one legal issue in play.

1975 Stone Cabin

BLM simply stated they were removing wild horses because the range was bad and the permittee was complaining. BLM now had jurisdiction, but was not doing any of the work required for any other action they would permit on public land; livestock, mining, cutting down a Christmas tree, etc.

It should be noted (in this very first case) that even though the court order allowed the removal, range degradation was attributed to years of overgrazing and not likely due to a recent increase in a “few” wild horses. The court also noted that simply because a range is over grazed it was not reason for BLM to  continue to roundup wild horses, “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. This Court presumes that future round ups will be undertaken only after the data contained in the 1977 EIS has been evaluated and all other alternative actions have been considered, as required by NEPA. In other words, this opinion should not be read as giving the BLM a blank check to order the removal of wild horses without filing an impact statement whenever it determines that a range is overgrazed.”

The argument above sounds very familiar. Today BLM continues to fail to base management on science, do the paperwork and, the footing to gain an equal process to advocate for our interests is still under attack. Today the very NEPA process that first case affirmed, is under assault.

This was the beginning of the fight to to see wild horses and burros managed fairly and under equal processes of law as “integral to the system of the public lands.” The culmination of the life’s work of Velma Johnston (and tens of thousands of American voices).

Velma Johnston (center)

Velma died 2 years later.

She began her journey driving home from work, seeing a truck with blood dripping from it and following that truck. Mustangs crammed into the back of the truck had trampled a colt and he lay dead and bleeding. She spent nearly 3 decades as a pioneer of advocacy; each battle she won led to next and the next. It was her mission to gain federal oversight, stop horrific abuses and see our mustangs protected for generations to come.

There will always be a profit driven interest that drive the exploitation of public lands. One fight will always lead to the next.

Stone Cabin, present day

The path behind is laid with the stepping stones placed by pioneers like Velma. The trail ahead must be blazed step by step.

Today, on the 49th anniversary of the Act, we are grateful for the work that has been done. We commit to honor the past and continue the fight to protect our wild ones from abuses, slaughter and to see them preserved as integral to the landscape for future generations.

In order to continue the fight, you need to understand where it began. The responsibility lies on the shoulders of todays advocacy.

Be a light in the darkness, as were the pioneers that blazed this trail for all of us. Expose the ugly truths and continue to blaze a new trail that can lead to full protections and achieve that treasured goal. Will our wild ones become protected as a true and fairly treated part of public lands? Will the exploitation continue? Our actions today will determine that outcome.

You can learn more about those early days in the biography of Velma Johnston written by one of her companions at that first roundup, Alan Kania. 


Our year end digital magazine is almost complete. We will be sending the link to our full color photo album, the year in pictures, out to all of you that have supported us through actions, or supported us through contributions, soon.

Our year end match is here. Your donation will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $5K. Year end funding is vital to keep our teams working in the field, educating Congress and in the courts.

If you are shopping online you can help Wild Horse Education by choosing us as your charity of choice on IGive or Amazonsmile.com 


What you can do today to help in the fight.

Please take action to demand Congress defund any roundups where the BLM has failed to create open and transparent management planning.  Click HERE.

Call the Senate switchboard and ask for your rep. Demand that all actions against wild horses and burros halt until William Perry Pendley leaves the BLM. His tenure was ruled illegal and BLM is still moving an agenda forward for Pendley’s former law clients.  All actions Pendley had a hand in must face scrutiny by a Senate committee. Switchboard (202) 224-3121

Categories: Lead, Wild Horse Education