WHB US History

WHB US History

Wild Horses and burros are unique in the United States. These are the only animals legally defined by the land they stand on, not what they are biologically. This legal definition makes them a doorway; preservation of the land is herd preservation and herd preservation is preservation of the land.

Most of the time the public is focused on the sale program (slaughter), adoption or sanctuary. These events take place after one of the most controversial events involving wild horses and burros, the roundup. A roundup only occurs after we fail to manage wild horses on the range.

Do you know what federal jurisdiction is and why it is important? Do you know how long it took to get federal jurisdiction? This jurisdiction is critical if we are to see wild horses and burros on public land for future generations.

It is important to understand an issue and how it evolved to create effective strategies for true advocacy. You must understand the issue physically, historically and psychologically to be effective in advocacy. If your child were sick, and you had to advocate for that child as you navigate the medical system, you would not scream at the doctor that the disease does not exist, nor would you deny an ailing child treatment. The same holds true for advocating for public lands and public horses.

If you love something take the time to understand.

Wild Horse Annie

Velma Johnston (1912-1977) was known as “Wild Horse Annie.” She was a pioneer in the fight to stop a local free for all that was poisoning water holes to kill off herds and stop them from eating grass for livestock industry use of public (federal) land. She fought to stop the brutal practice of mustanging. 

She accomplished that goal in 1971 when the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act established federal jurisdiction. Free roaming horses were now “public horses on public land.”

The intention was to preserve and protect the horse and it’s habitat. That is the challenge of the modern day advocate.

We can not lose this precious, hard won, ground in the fight to save our wild ones on the land they now stand.

Archived editorial to Velma Johnston



Mustanging was the practice of hunting down wild horses by any method at hand. Trucks, planes and even pit traps were used. Wild horses were trucked off to be ground up for fertilizer, chicken feed and dog food. Any local that needed fast cash often engaged in mustanging on your public land. 

The practice drew outrage when it was brought to the citizens of the US by brave pioneers like Velma Johnston. 

Resentment over federal authority of what many local interests treated like private property, your public land, was growing. That resentment included the cessation of a fast cash crop, the public wild horse. 

Archived article series on the public land wars

The Law

In 1971 the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law. The Act found that wild horses were “fast disappearing” and America’s wild horses needed protection “on the land they now stand.” Our “living symbols” of the spirit of the West belonged to all American’s as a symbol of our heritage and identity. 

In the 1970’s our country was waking up to the destructive capacity of profit driven interests, deep seated state government legislative cronyism and our air, water and public lands were a victim. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was born in the same decade.

Our federal laws are under attack by profit driven interest. The Burns Amendment is an example of  local interests changing federal law.

Burns Amendment (Archive)

Federal jurisdiction is what makes this “public lands and public horses.” Without that jurisdiction, this would have a “for sale” sign.

It is very hard to compete with well funded lobby groups, public relations firms and massive amounts of reactive content. However federal jurisdiction is contained in a realm where we can litigate, be involved in law making and negotiate. The realm that preceded it, state and local oversight, is what led to the need for federal jurisdiction of wild horses and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency in the first place.

We are losing dangerous ground day by day as restrictions are eased for profit driven interests. This situation is at a critical juncture.