Lead

50 Years Ago This Week

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As we watch the ongoing roundup in the Surprise Complex, the roundup in Rock Springs continues, the one at Centennial moves forward into phase 2 and Owyhee begins. The acceleration of a fatally flawed program, with no effort to fix core issues, is running full steam under the BLM 2020 plan (influenced heavily by “Path Forward” lobby group) it is moving fast.

The 50th Anniversary of the signing of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRH&B Act) is just around the corner.

As we document the roundups, and try to get the bureaucracy to fix the flaws in this program from range to the lack of real protection from slaughter, it makes one wonder what the pioneers of todays advocacy were doing 50 years ago?

Fifty years ago this week, 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.

After Velma testified (and the Senate was flooded with public outcry) the bill passed the Senate committee. The Senate 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. (artificial boundaries)

The House version kept that section that put them only in areas the agencies would select later.

When the final version was signed the WFRH&B 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;

HMA map

The political wrangling of the House and Senate, and the resulting language in the Act, is what gave rise to further debates at the local level of land management agencies and the “HMA system” of today. 

Where our team at Surprise is sitting today, there was once vast wild herds where a man named Harry Winton (some documents name him “Wilson”) held a contract for the U.S. Cavalry. Saddlebreds, draft horses and retired Thoroughbred racing studs (purchased by the U.S. Cavalry) were turned out. There were no boundary lines and the horses ran freely throughout this entire area before, during, or after World War I and II.

While horses were being pulled out of this tri-state area to fuel the needs of war, conflict over grazing land was fierce. During World War I range wars raged in the West between free grazers and homesteaders. It was a bloody mess. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was created in large part to stop the bloodshed, not just an effort to save the landscape from the swarms of hungry domestic livestock. When World War II began in 1939, Winton was still supplying the Cavalry with horses running throughout this area.

This is just one place, one piece of public lands, where boundary lines are not part of the landscape, but politics.

Mustanging was running rampant by the end of the war in 1945.

One day in 1950, on her way home from work, Velma Bronn Johnston saw blood dripping out of the back of a truck that had come from a colt trampled inside a trailer full of wild horses heading to the slaughterhouse. (That road is only about a 3 hour drive from where we sit watching the chopper fly today.)

Tour being given to Velma Johnston, Wild Horse Annie, of the first capture of wild horses by the BLM in 1975 at Stone Cabin.

Velma (Wild Horse Annie) went on to be a driving force to gain the protections afforded today and it was a hard and long fight.

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.

Then the push to gain federal jurisdiction. Her testimony to the Senate in 1971 was key to the passage of the 1971 Act. 

50 years ago this week is when big lobby groups pushed the House and Senate to create the beginning of the artificial boundary lines we have today. These lines exist not because wild horses only lived in these places, but because politics runs the range and not science or data.

However, that fact does not diminish the massive achievement that is the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The fight to create actual on-range management based on data and science, close the loopholes to slaughter, protect the land our wild ones stand one, belongs to us now.

Back to the roundup, reports and deadlines. The chopper is flying.


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. 


Help keep us in the field and in the courts. 

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