Wild Horse Education

History Made 50 Years Ago (the debate)

The “Wild Horse Annie Act,” PL 86-234 passed on September 8, 1959. This was the law that forbade poisoning of water holes and hunting wild horses with aircraft. The law was not being enforced.

50 years ago history was being made as the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was being debated, amended and sent back and forth between the House and Senate.

part of the testimony of Velma Johnston

In April 1971 Velma Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) gave testimony about the lack of enforcement and confusion over jurisdictional responsibility to the 1959 law. (more here) We needed the new law that would establish federal jurisdiction and create an intention to create a framework for preservation and protection of wild horses and burros beyond the (unenforced) 1959 law.

After Velma testified (and the Senate was flooded with public outcry) the bill passed the committee. The committee eliminated the section that stated wild horses and burros could only be managed on specific ranges and stated they were simply to be managed as a part of the system of public lands. The amended version also stated that there will be no monetary gain when removing horses or burros.

However, the amended version also gave way to the phrase “unclaimed.” Note: This gave rise to the “claiming period” after the Act was passed. From 1971-1976 mustanging continued as ranchers claimed ownership of tens of thousands of wild horses. The claiming period came to end in 1976 after the agency began requiring proof of ownership. 

The companion bill was introduced into the House. The committee passed the Senate version. However, in full debate on the floor in the House the bill was amended, again. The final House version, passed October 4, 1971, required  the establishment of specific ranges for the horses, going against the public outcry against such established ranges. (This is why wild horses and burros live inside artificially-set boundaries. It was not because that was how wild horses/burros used the range, scientific modeling, but a political move.)

On October 15th, 1971, the bill had passed through the Senate and the House of Representatives, but contained differing language on where we would manage wild horses/burros; within artificial boundaries or not.

HMA map we have today as a result of political wrangling, not science

The Act passed with this language: “range” means the amount of land necessary to sustain an existing herd or herds of wild free-roaming horses and burros, which does not exceed their known territorial limits, and which is devoted principally but not necessarily exclusively to their welfare in keeping with the multiple-use management concept for the public lands;

Four Mile captive. On nearly 19,000 acres the agency claims only 37-60 wild horses can exist in the artificial boundary. The majority of grazing goes to privately-owned livestock. (click here for 4 Mile roundup update)

Political strangleholds over the agency went to work to minimize any area where a wild horse range was actually established. The agency changed the lower case “r” to an upper case “R” and maintained the ranges established before the Act passed, like for the Pryor Mountain herd. Everything else became a “Herd Area” that rapidly shrunk to the “Herd Management Areas” we have today.

The agency continues to manage all of our public resources for the benefit of politicians (and the huge corporate PACs of industry that donate to their campaigns).

The pioneers of this movement were in a heated battle exactly 50 years ago today. They fought to gain foundational law that was passed to the next generation. We continue the fight.

Due to covid-related restrictions our on-site event was cancelled. We replaced the event with a free online exhibit to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Act and the fight moving forward.

You can visit the exhibit by clicking the image below. Testimony, archived news articles and images can be seen in the “three floor” exhibit that takes you before the Act passed, through the law, itself, and what occurred immediately after passage. All advocates should take time and virtually walk through the exhibit. 

Click to visit online exhibit

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Thank you. 

Categories: Wild Horse Education