The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was enacted on December 15, 1971. An additional press event for signing was on December 18th. Even the day of the Anniversary itself lands with a debate. (It became law the day it was published as law in the federal register.) We nod to the Anniversary of the day it became law; not the media event.
December 13th is the National Day of the Horse and December 15th is the Anniversary of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act; naturally our thoughts go to Velma Johnson aka Wild Horse Annie. You simply cannot think of one without the other.
If you put “Wild Horse Annie” in our search bar you will find several articles about her including a special online portal: 50 Year Anniversary Wild Horse and Burro Act: Special Exhibit which includes her testimony in front of Congress, her own journal entry, and several magazine and newspaper articles published about her around the time of the Act’s passage. These articles and books are used as reference material for the following piece.
Article provided by Sara Bassler, WHE Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) volunteer. (part 1)
Velma was a force to be reckoned with. It took her 20 years of blood, sweat, and tears but the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed unanimously by Congress without a single dissenting vote. How does that happen? A lot has been written about Velma – her difficult childhood due to polio, her disfigurement as a result of the treatment she received for polio, her supportive loving marriage, her life as a rancher’s wife, her skill as an executive secretary, her sense of humor, and her fortitude in trying to save wild horses.
But I want to understand her magic, her “secret sauce” of advocacy. Was it so much her personal magic, or was it the magic of the times? A time when a majority of the country still read books, watched many of the same movies, knew their neighbors, and had an attention span longer than a TicTok video, when a greater percentage of people in the west had a closer connection to the land and an understanding of the range, and when politics weren’t so tribal? Am I just romanticizing the times “back when life seemed simpler?”
Was it a combination of the times and the tenacity and meticulous record keeping of Velma that made it possible to pass unanimous legislation to save our wild horses and burros?
It’s too much to contemplate for one column, so today I’m starting with looking the landscape Velma faced, which is similar to our own.
We can draw real inspiration and deeper understanding from revealing the similarities and knowing that if she can find a way to create a stepping stone toward preservation, so can we.
1. Powerful livestock and other industries: She was challenging an informal coalition of ranching, mining and business interests who believed the public lands belonged to them because they have the means of exploiting it. It was no secret conspiracy, though she sometimes thought so, only a tradition as old as the nation itself, a tradition of plunder that goes at least as far back as the arguments among the founding fathers over who should collect interest on the money in the US Treasury. Somewhere back in the beginning of the nation, the Indian belief in communal land joined with 18th century idea of democracy and began its long conflict with Anglo-Saxon idea of private property that continues today. (Esquire Magazine May 1972)
She knew that the BLM was under pressure from the “livestock dynasty”, which always believed “the use of the public lands to the exclusion of every living thing that is not commercially profitable to its own is its God-given right.” (Velma’s correspondence, Kania, pg 73)
2. Wild horses and burros were the scapegoats: Cattle and sheep ranchers claimed that wild horses were depleting the ranges of forage for livestock. Velma rebutted that claim and described the habitat for horses which was in remote and barren areas void of domestic livestock. (WHA book by Kania, pg 63) She wrote in a 1977 editorial, “With Western range lands in the depleted condition they are – man’s encroachment, diversion of water, fencing – everyone has pushed the panic button and, except for the handful of us who are their champions, the Wild Ones have been made the scapegoats. We are feeling the pressures of the livestock operators every way we turn out here, and a few of them have been mightly bold in their comments about me. They are not about to be thwarted in their dominant use of your land and mine” (Kania, pg 139)
4. Animosity towards wild horses and burros: With the passage of the Act, one rancher who noted that “no sensible rancher is going to leave any wild horses out there to compete with his cattle for the scrub and the browse. He thinks the ranchers are either going to claim all the horses or shoot them dead.” (Esquire Magazine May 1972) May 5, 1975 Sports Illustrated Article notes that after the passage of the 1971 Act, a letter to the editor of the Nevada State Journal said, “I predict Wild Horse Annie will be called Dead Horse Annie in a very few years”.
5. Ranchers, BLM employees and others mocked her as an advocate, in order to diminish her message: “Annie’s BLM foe, Dante Solari, was the first to call her ‘Wild Horse Annie’ and he meant it to be derogatory. She “was aware of disparaging references to her as ‘a crazy woman’ and ‘that little old lady in running shoes’ although at 43, she was hardly elderly and she certainly wouldn’t have been caught dead in running shoes. ” (Cruise & Griffiths, pg 88). The Esquire magazine described her as “this weird polio-twisted woman who was a secretary in Reno” who “came along and started making a fuss”.
6. She was threatened with physical violence: Many sources mention that she answered the door holding a gun: “Because of death threats made directly and indirectly against her, Annie greeted unannounced visitors with a smile and an outstretched hand, but also with a loaded .38 revolver held discretely behind the front door in the other hand.” (Kania, pg ix) In 1973 “a reproduction of a Revolutionary War flag was sent like a burning cross to her – a gift from ‘a vigilante committee of 10,000’. Joining the nameless roster of the clan of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming residents were several anonymous Idaho legislators. The rally flag was a sketch of a coiled rattlesnake with morte printed below, the Revolutionary war expression ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ was included.” (Kania pg 158) The two women who took over running Annie’s organizations following her death were told by the FBI that they were on Charles Manson’s hate list because Velma and her staff often worked in cooperation with the federal government. (Kania pg 190).
7. BLM insisted that wild horses were breeding at 20-25% a year. Velma tracked down Kay Wilkes of the Washington office of the BLM as the source of that claim. “Wilkes later withdrew his claim and explained the information on the wild horse and burro population explosion was a computer percentage derived by the use of the following premise recorded by Annie’s shorthand notes: ‘Start with equally sexed animals. You compute an optimum population potential. Totally even age structure. Assume they start breeding at two, and produce the first foal at three. Stop producing at seventeen. Live three more years after that. No other problems. No death loss from predator, disease or starvation. Every foal that is born lives. You will come up with forty-one percent. We know that isn’t right. Divide forty-one percent by two and you come up with twenty percent. Assume, too that every adult horse lives out its full span.’” (Kania, pg 106-107).
8. Wild horse and burro advocacy groups were at odds: Velma was angry near the time of her death. (note Velma’s org WHOA! went under. Her org does not exist today). The quote below is from a letter Velma penned after another organization literally swooped in and took over what she was working on. This letter was penned shortly before her death.
“I’m damned if I can overlook how WHOA! has been cut out of everything to do with the news media. There is no intention of recognizing that anybody did anything but HSUS and AHPA, but we’ll see about that. Isn’t it awful why all of us, supposedly working toward the same goal, can’t deal fairly with each other? I’ve had several telephone calls… asking what WHOA! has been doing! And here, by God, had it not been for WHOA! the ‘heroes’ would have nothing to be heroic about, and those damned ranchers would have gotten away with it. I’m bitter. YUP.”
This is not an exhaustive list. I’m sure we currently have additional obstacles in common with Velma.
As an advocacy we need to examine how today’s landscape has not only maintained similar obstacles, but how it differs from hers.
The goal of these columns is to explore Velma’s life and experiences with the hope of uncovering the magic (or “secret sauce”) that exists in each of us or in our current political climate that will aid us in saving the remaining wild ones.
Learning from those that came before us, who broke ground to do what many thought impossible, is something we should all spend some time learning from and honoring.
My personal journey as an advocate brought me to WHE. An organization that has broken barriers and created precedent (like gaining the first humane policy, broken barriers on the First Amendment and more).
Together, we can honor the past, break ground and strive to protect and preserve our “wild ones” A term used often by Velma to reference our wild horses and burros.
WHE’s online portal: 50 Year Anniversary Wild Horse and Burro Act: Special Exhibit
Wild Horse Annie by Alan J Kania
Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs, The Life of Velma Johnston by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths
Sara Bassler is a WHE volunteer who focuses on our FOIA requests. She started riding horses around age 7, with her first horse being a 20-year-old mustang named Shamrock. After being disconnected from the horse world for several decades, she discovered the plight of our wild horses and burros during the Covid lock down of 2020. Sara has a background in law and medicine. She currently works as a psychiatrist in county mental health.
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Categories: Wild Horse Education