Wild Horse Education

The First Fight, The Fight Today (Perspective in a deep dive)


From the desk of Laura Leigh, WHE founder and President

As we engage the legal battle to protect the historic Stone Cabin HMA (Saulsbury and surrounding areas) from federal agencies that don’t take time to treat wild horses with any equity in the system and fail to craft basic transparent and inclusive management planning, there is a disturbing parallel to the early days of the 1971 Act.

The fight to gain the original protections afforded under the Act was a monumental fight. If that legislation had not passed to save wild horses and burros from state and local authorities hell bent on perpetuating mustanging (the brutal capture and killing of wild horses for dog food, chicken feed and fertilizer and the outright slaughter of thousands of burros where they stood) we probably would not have herds of wild horses and burros today.

It should be noted that states have been trying to usurp as much power as possible over public lands (federal) for a long time. In most western states that push includes controlling population growth suppression (removals), and in many, a resumption of open sales to slaughter. In recent years slow moves under agreements like “Path Forward” and state resolutions for “greater local control” have inched back “supreme” federal jurisdiction. Expect to see more of this type of push in the coming days, months and years. One of our volunteers recently attended a county commission meeting in one of the western states (to support an upcoming state resolution) that shows that the resentment over federal authority (that stops mustanging) is still vehemently and overly-emotionally resented.

On April 19, 1971, Velma Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) gave testimony to Congress demonstrating that the 1959 law was not working. One key component was the lack of clear jurisdiction and enforcement; mustanging was continuing seemingly aided by the jurisdictional mess. (a really important article that todays advocates should read can be found HERE)

In 1971 the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed into law and the public had an expectation that federal jurisdiction would come with an equity in management planning and an equitable share of resources. The word “equity” is a term used legally to describe the quality of being fair and impartial.

Instead, the BLM (and Congress) seemed to (literally) not know what to do with the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act after it passed in 1971 with press fanfare. It took nearly two decades to codify the law (create regulations) and nearly four decades to finalize a handbook (how the agency would carry out regulations to follow the law). And, of course, pressure from locals that resented all the regulations associated with all of the environmental laws passed in the 70s and 80s (Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Public Rangelands Improvement Act, Endangered Species Act, etc.) kept “wild horses” in a state of limbo and often removals were (apparently) planned to placate increasing tensions. Equity in planning went right out the window.

Monitor USFS WHT

Today we find ourselves attempting to gain the missing equity in a system overwhelming bowing to states and county pressure. Wild horses and burros are still missing a transparent and inclusive management planning process and removals (and other population growth suppression) plans are created influenced by pressure from states, counties and big business.

In 1975, the very first court battle after the Act was passed, against the first official removal of wild horses, hit at Stone Cabin. The range stocked with too many cows (common) was overgrazed and the horses were suffering. What people do not understand is how historic numbers of livestock use that was decimating western ranges were simply cut in a “percent” game by early grazing laws, not science based range capacity. So when you hear “livestock use had been cut” and then a blame game pointing fingers at things like wild horses, it simply is not true. No cut was ever based on how much existing populations of wild horses needed, wild horse “appropriate numbers” were based on “what would be tolerated.”

A removal of wild horses was planned at Stone Cabin. There were no management plans for horses on the land legally designated for their use and BLM simply approved a removal without performing any real assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that passed into law in 1970.

The state wanted horses turned over to them for sale to slaughter (claiming the 1971 Act was an illegal law and states had jurisdiction) and advocates wanted BLM to treat the horses fairly, humanely and find a way to leave them on the range and/or place them on other lands.

The court first affirmed the legally of the 1971 law. As such, wild horses and burros being a public lands resource, all processes and laws had to be followed (the phrase “multiple use” was coined in 1976 under FLMPA and BLM needed to “balance interests” and begin to protect the environment).

This Court is not saying that the BLM is free to round up wild horses whenever a particular range has an overgrazing problem. Nor is the Court saying that every time the removal of wild horses will have a limited, slightly positive effect on the environment of the range, the BLM can proceed to remove a certain number of those horses. BLM officials admit that more round-ups of wild horses may be necessary in the future. This Court decides only that the Stone Cabin Valley round up currently underway may continue as an interim measure to preserve the range until the EIS required by Judge Flannery is filed in 1977. This Court presumes that future round ups will be undertaken only after the data contained in the 1977 EIS has been evaluated and all other alternative actions have been considered, as required by NEPA. In other words, this opinion should not be read as giving the BLM a blank check to order the removal of wild horses without filing an impact statement whenever it determines that a range is overgrazed.”

So there was a direction that BLM had to create some type of large environmental analysis and then tier any roundup assessment to that management document (Environmental Impact Statement, EIS, is a deeper document than the Environmental Assessment or EA BLM does for “gathers and population growth suppression). So BLM began doing Herd Management Area Plans (HMAP) to create a type of assessment document specifically geared toward wild horses and burros and those words were codified into law. BLM reported to Congress every year on the progress of baseline HMAPs (that would need revision after studies and data was collected).

In the 80s and 90s advocacy itself was focused on the adoption program (that was born at the 1975 Stone Cabin roundup). Wild horses were going to slaughter. In the 90’s the Associated Press that uncovered abuses program; the probe found that the program allowed thousands of wild horses and burros to be slaughtered and that BLM employees profited. It also found that the BLM had lost track of 32,000 adopted animals and that 90 percent of the horses rounded up each year – or several thousand – ended up being slaughtered. In November of 1997, in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben (the same Judge that ruled on the first case in history against abuse at roundups) a settlement was reached where BLM promised to “tighten the reins on its wild horse adoption program.”

However, attention to the on-range program was minimal. BLM was lumping multiple HMAs in multiple districts into roundup plans. Again, just as with the first roundup at Stone Cabin, an undefined cause of “range degradation” was at the heart of these removals and BLM had stopped doing HMAPs. By the late 90s, BLM simply began doing ten-year Gather-EAs… entirely omitting any EIS or HMAP. In the late 80s the land use courts (not federal court) gave BLM a green-light to do single removals in extraordinary circumstances without an HMAP.

Today, BLM claims that case allows them to kick the HMAP plan down a path of delay that has no expiration date. They feel that creating another round of “remove to a number to gain unproven range health improvements” for another decade… and mash in multiple forms of fertility control whose overlap has never been studied… decimating herd structure without even understanding migration… is just hunky-dory. (While they give the range designated for wild horses away to extraction and livestock.)

A clear line can be drawn from the past into today.

Knowing how we got here can help us understand how to fight back… better.

You can learn more about the first roundup under the Act at Stone Cabin in our exhibit to the history of the Act HERE.

You can learn more about our legal battle at Stone Cabin today HERE.

Thank you for helping us stay in the fight! 

Categories: Wild Horse Education