On March 5, 1912, Velma Bronn Johnston was born. We are writing about her birthday a bit early because the week ahead is an intense one in advocacy. The first week of March is always a busy week and we often miss her birthday. “Wild Horse Annie” is one of the most significant voices for wild horses in the history of the movement.
March 8th is International Women’s Day. WHE honor Velma twice this week. (You can scroll to the bottom of the page and meet some of the “women of WHE” in the Stone Cabin digital magazine or click here).
We honor her for all of her hard work to set a frame for those that came after her.
There are many that have written about “Wild Horse Annie.” However, Velma was a prolific writer herself. The documents (collected by Velma) in the archives of the Nevada Historical Society and the Denver Public Library contain boxes and boxed of newspaper clippings, notes, correspondence and journal entries.
We feel that one of the most powerful documents in the archives is a journal entry penned by Velma herself “The Fight to Save A Memory.” (The third article on our “Trip to the Archives” page.)
To celebrate the birthday of “Wild Horse Annie” this year, we thought it appropriate to let her tell us about her journey, in her own words.
The Fight To Save A Memory by Velma B. Johnston (Wild Horse Annie)
Be it enacted by the Senate and House Of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That: Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands. Pub. L. No. 92-195, 1, 85 Stat. 649 (Dec. 15, 1971)
On a memorable day in 1950, I came upon a truckload of mutilated horses as I was driving from our ranch into nearby Reno, where I work. I discovered that they were wild horses, captured in an airborne roundup. Their destination was a slaughter house, where the sole requirement was that the horses be ambulatory and plentiful. The captors received six and one-half cents per pound. Because net profit depended on the quantity rather than upon condition, injury to the animals was of minimal concern.
For many years I had heard about the capturing of wild horses by airplane. This practice concerned me, but because it had not touched my life directly, I pretended it didn’t exist, hoping it would go away. After that day in 1950, I could no longer “pretend it wasn’t there,” for it had now touched my life. In the decades to come, it would reach and change the lives of many others as well.
At that time, twenty-one years ago, the practice of harvesting wild horses for use in commercial products had reached its peak. Their numbers had been reduced from two million to 25,000 in half a century, and the methods of gathering were ruthless and indiscriminate. If the exploitation had continued, these horses – so dramatically linked with our pioneer past – would literally have been wiped from the face of the earth. Burros, though not commercially exploited, fared no better than horses. Claims of overpopulation and possible competition with native desert bighorn sheep led to systematic extermination programs.
The pet food industry had created a ready market for all the horses that could be caught, and exploiters were quick to take advantage of it. Since the old method of running the horses by mounted horsemen was much too slow, cowboys took to the air. Low-flying airplanes drove the wild horses by the thousands at breakneck speed from their meager shelters in the rim rocks and canyons into the dry and barren flats below. To force the horses to turn or run faster, the airborne cowboys blasted them with sawed-off shotguns – never fatally, but sufficiently to terrify and maim. Injured and exhausted by their flight through the rugged terrain, the horses were no match for the fast trucks that continued the chase, and ropers, lashed to the cabs of the trucks, easily lassoed them. Tied to the other end of the short ropes were heavy truck tires, which the exhausted and frightened horses would drag around attempting to escape, until they could fight no longer. Finally, thrown and tied by the feet, they were dragged up rough board ramps onto trucks where they were prodded to their feet and packed in tightly, their weight against each other often being all that held them on their feet. On the way to processing centers they were rarely, if ever, fed or watered. Because they weighed less, colts were often left to die from starvation or to become victims of predators. The movie The Misfits was based on an actual roundup by this method. Other methods of capture were conceived – all cruel. The operation was big business.
Velma ends her memoir:
IV. Unfinished Business
Although the passage of Public Law 92-195 signals a momentous advance, much was left undone. Although supporters of the Act sought civil as well as criminal sanctions, the former were omitted from the final version of the bull. Furthermore, the statute does not adequately immunize the Secretary from the influence of state wildlife agencies and other local governmental bodies with whom he is authorized to make cooperative agreements. Local pressure groups in areas where domestic livestock and target animal interests traditionally prevail can jeopardize the execution of the legislative purpose – to benefit wild horses and burros.
Unfortunately, the recommendation to prohibit release of domestic horses on the open range was not included in the legislation. In the light of this omission, careful consideration should be given to forage supply where permits for grazing domestic horses are sought. Permits should not be granted if the survival of wild horses and burros would be jeopardized, and strict regulations should be instituted to keep the number of domestic horses within the limit authorized by the Bureau of Land Management.
The most serious gap in Public Law 92-195 was the elimination of the authorization for appropriation of funds to carry out the provisions of the Act. The additional obligation to protect, manage, and control wild horses and burros on public lands throughout the eleven Western states has increased tremendously the Bureau of Land Managements responsibility; the Bureau is now faced with the impossible task of fulfilling that responsibility on a budget already stretched to the breaking point. Experienced conversationists know that conservation always costs something; if efforts to obtain an emergency appropriation fail, the long-awaited program for wild horses and burros may come to nothing.
Legislation to protect and manage wild horses and burros by placing them under federal jurisdiction has followed a tenuous path, with public interest and action finally prevailing. Those of us in the forefront of the battle only showed the way. We did not achieve all that we set out to achieve, and we are not yet sure that what has been gained will provide an adequate program; we must wait and watch. The people of America have fought hard to save this colorful remnant of two animal species that so uniquely represent the American spirit – freedom, pride, independence, endurance, and the ability to survive against unbelievable odds.
Should the future of these animals remain in doubt, the fight will go on.
One of Velma Johnston’s favorite wild horses was the Stone Cabin Grey.
Stone Cabin has been a keystone to the work of Wild Horse Education for a decade. We did an entire e-zine about Stone Cabin and you can flip the pages below.
Categories: Wild Horse Education