Wild Horses and Burros

     The treatment of wild horses and burros on the public lands emerged as a major national issue in the 1960's.  By the end of the decade, BLM received more mail about horses than all other topics combined.  Accurate or not, wild horses and burros came to be seen as a national legacy, running wild and free in the West since the Spanish first visited the area.  The fact that most animals were released from failed homesteads in the 1920's and 1930's didn't matter.  BLM employees arguing this point or stressing the need to manage horse and burro populations against the needs of wildlife and cattle on the range were seen as proof of BLM's bias in favor of livestock grazing.
     Under the law, wild horses and burros were viewed as feral animals, not qualifying for protection under any wildlife legislation.  BLM routinely issued permits in the 1950's and 1960's to companies gathering horses and burros off the public lands.  More than 100,000 wild horses had been captured in Nevada alone during the 1950's, with most destined for rendering plants.  IN 1964 more than 1,200 animals gathered in a single roundup in Montana were sold as bucking horses.
      In the late 1950's, BLM estimated that there were around 20,000 wild horses remaining in nine western states.  By the late 60's this estimate dropped to 17,000.  Much of the public became concerned that horse and burro numbers were dwindling and suggested the government set up refuges for them.
     In 1962, the Nevada Wild Horse Range was created within the 394,000 acre Nellis Air Force Base.  BLM built watering holes throughout the area, and because livestock were not permitted on the base, wild horse numbers grew from about 200 in 1962 to more than 1,000 by 1976.  Once protected, horses proved they could multiply rapidly.
     The story of wild horse protection in America goes back to 1950, to a woman named Velma Johnston.   Johnston made the 20-mile trip from her ranch outside Reno to her office for years, but one day found herself behind a cattle truck loaded with horses.  Noticing blood dripping out of the back, she decided to follow the truck.  What she found was a load of wild horses being delivered to a rendering plant.  Most were injured, some badly, from the capture.  On that day she resolved to publicize the plight of wild horses and prevent the kind of treatment she saw.
     In 1952, Johnston and her supporters convinced Storey County, Nevada, to ban the use of aircraft in gathering horses.  When Congress passed the Wild Horse Protection Act of 1959, much of the credit belonged to Johnston, who proudly took the name "Wild Horse Annie" from her detractors.  In 1965, she founded the International Society for the protection of Mustangs and Burros, and soon after, the Wild Horse Organizational Assistance (WHOA).  These groups and others then began a concerted effort to convince Congress to establish a national policy for protection of wild horses and burros, which came to fruition in 1971.
     In 1968 BLM established the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range on 32,000 acres of land on the Montana-Wyoming border.  The area was created after a local dispute erupted into a national controversy covered by the national news media.
     Range conditions in the Pryor Mountains had deteriorated to the point where most lands were in poor condition and continuing to decline.  At the same time, horse numbers had risen to about 125.  The Montana Game and Fish Department asked BLM to remove most o the horses because they were using browse needed by deer.  Several ranchers voiced concern about declining livestock forage.  BLM worked out plans to remove all but 20 horses from the area.
     Fearing a roundup was still imminent, the Humane Society of the United States sued BLM to prevent it.  Although a preliminary injunction against a roundup was denied, the case could have been reopened whenever BLM announced plans to gather horses from the area.
     Thousands of letters deluged the Department, from elementary school students and their parents to concerned citizens all over the country, asking that BLM create a refuge for the horses.  Director Rasmussen personally visited the Pryor Mountains in 1968 and concluded that the area should be established as the Bureau's first wild horse range.  On September 12, Secretary Udall signed a Public Land Order establishing the refuge; BLM dropped its plans to remove horses from the area, but set a limit of 125 to 145 horses for the range to protect its forage.

     The Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1972 gave legal status to horses and burros on the public lands and required BLM to institute programs to protect and manage them.  This act was one of the first pieces of legislation dealing with particular species and their habitats, specifying techniques that could - and couldn't - be used in their management.  The act brought wild horses and burros into BLM's multiple use planning process: the Bureau began to allot forage to horses and burros in addition to livestock and wildlife.  If too many horses or burros occurred in an area, plans were written to address how and when they would be removed.  Environmental assessments were prepared for public review and comment - a far cry from the discretion allowed managers in the 1950's and early 1960's.
     The act prohibited all sales or commercial trade in the animals and made BLM responsible for its enforcement.  The Bureau hired its first special agents under the act in 1974.  Horses and burro numbers could be controlled, however, by moving excess animals to other areas (where they existed prior to the act), by humane destruction, or by "adoption" to private citizens.  The first option was untenable because horse and burro numbers were increasing throughout their range.  The second, BLM correctly surmised, would never be approved on a large scale by the public.
     BLM's only viable alternative was adoption; its first wild horse adoption took place in Montana in 1973.  Because early efforts proved successful and were received with widespread public support, the Bureau implemented a nationwide Adobt-A-Horse program in 1976.  By 1980, the public had adopted more than 20,000 horses and 2,000 burros through the program.
    The protection afforded horses and burros under the act allowed for rapid increases in their population throughout the West.  By 1980, BLM estimated that wild horse numbers exceeded 52,000 and burros 12,000, on the public lands, with some herds growing by 15 to 20 percent each year.
    BLM found itself facing a whole new array of problems.  In January 1976, animal unit months for livestock grazing were reduced in the Burns District (Oregon) in response to reductions in forage caused by wild horses in the area.  A cattleman affected by this reduction filed a claim for damages with the Interior Department but was not successful.  New Mexico challenged the act's constitutionality, claiming it violated the state's right to manage wildlife within its borders.  Initially found unconstitutional, the act was later upheld by the Supreme Court, which decided the federal government had authority to manage horses - and other wildlife species - on public lands.

"They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth." 
Henry Beston, nature writer, 1888-1968

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