Republish from April 17, 2021
March is “Women’s History Month.” This article published last year is getting a lot of attention this week!
We felt this piece was a good way to honor Velma Johnston and her work so we have republished the piece.
On April 19, 1971 Velma Bronn Johnston gave testimony to the public lands sub-committee of the U.S. House of Representatives as public law 92-195, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, was being considered.
Her testimony is a centerpiece in our special exhibit: 50th Anniversary of the Act.
Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston has a fascinating personal story from overcoming polio, how her advocacy began when she followed a truck with blood dripping from it, to her feelings and reflection on her advocacy she shared through her memoir before her death.
As the Anniversary of her testimony to Congress nears that helped pass the 1971 Act, and establish federal jurisdiction over wild horses in the public domain, we reflect on the words and work of Velma.
The testimony Velma gave in 1971 is as valid today as it was when she gave it.
The 1959 “Wild Horse Annie” law was simply not being enforced. Even when people found the courage to speak up, the resources were simply not being made available to successfully prosecute those that violated the law on a local level (often made up of the offenders themselves). A broader law, that provided absolute jurisdiction to the federal government, clear direction that they were to protect wild horses and burros, was desperately needed.
A few of the circumstances have changed. However, local (political) control of federal land management field offices has led to the exact same forces that kept violating the 1959 Act, controlling the direction of the 1971 Act.
Every advocate today should read both the testimony of Velma Johnston and the original 1971 law.
Highlights of her testimony below:
Her answer to the claims made by the livestock industry that was heavily subsidized, controlled local politics, and grazed on public domain, below.
Her testimony points out that leaving this matter to the states to enforce the 1959 Act, or create their own laws for wild horses and burros on public lands, would be a disaster. She pointed to multiple State Legislatures that were crafting and passing their own Resolutions. Most of them could be summed up by the cartoon below (see her testimony for more example of state level bills).
The most intense part of her testimony recounted multiple instances where illegal captures (and sales to slaughter) were happening, yet nothing was done.
In one instance Julian Goicoechea (the grandfather of “JJ” Goicoechea of the Cattlemen’s Ass’n, Public Lands Council, Path Forward, etc. and father of NV State Legislator, Pete) had hired a pilot to capture wild horses (buckshot would be fired from the plane to keep horses grouped and moving). When the local brand inspector and Sheriff heard the shots and investigated and saw the buckshot horses, they knew what was happening. However, they lacked the means to transport the horses and allowed the alleged perpetrators to keep custody of the evidence. A trial, over 5 months later, and the perpetrators had shorn the horses and there were now brands on the horses. They claimed you can not see a brand until you sheer an animal. The prosecutor in the case failed to call in any expert to refute that absurd claim.
Screen grabs of other instances:
County commissions were approving removals of wild horses from grazing allotments. The grab below, is from what is referenced today as part of the “Calico Complex.”
One from Elko:
In December the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law. Yet, from 1971-1975 federal land management agencies spent more time trying to figure out how not to enforce the law, than to take steps to enforce it. They issued a “claiming period” where anyone that claimed horses or burros as private property could remove them from federal lands. In many grazing allotment (like those in Elko county, NV) were wiped clean of free-roaming horses so that federal jurisdiction could not impact the permittee. It was not until 1976 that the BLM began to require proof of ownership prior to allowing removals.
Since the 1970’s some things have changed, much has stayed the same. The same people (and their descendants) that violated the 1959 law still call most of the shots on public lands.
Actual management planning that would preserve and protect wild horses (and burros) and their habitat, is still not happening. The law requires management planning, yet provides no timetable to for land managers to comply.
The time is now.
You can help.
The actions on this page change frequently based on the most timely actions. Herd Management Area Plans (HMAP) must become part of the language used when we interact with representatives and in comments to federal land management personnel on roundup EAs. BLM began a few of these plans back in the 1980’s and basically abandoned them in favor of “gather plans.” Advocates have no mechanism to address forage allocations, stocking levels, stopping fences or mines that fragment the tiny 12% of public lands they can legally occupy. (You can see the latest action for reform here.)
Understanding the issue historically, psychologically, physically and procedurally, is key to effective advocacy today.
You can visit the Special Exhibit and take a peek at the time before the Act, the passage of the Act and the time immediately after the law passed by clicking HERE.
There is a lot we can learn from the circumstances, options and pitfalls of yesterday, as we push to drive preservation and protections of our treasured wild ones, and the land they need to survive, today.
Help keep us in the fight.
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