In 1950, a woman called Velma Bronn Johnston, an animal welfare activist who later came to be known as "Wild Horse Annie", was driving to work near Reno, Nevada, when she came up behind a horse trailer splashing blood onto the road each time it came to a stop. The trailer was so overcrowded with horses that they were only able to stand because they were packed in so tightly. Many were frothing at the mouth from thirst. Johnston followed the trailer all the way to its destination, which was the local slaughterhouse. When the tailgate dropped she saw that the source of the blood on that Nevada road had been the body of a young colt, little more than a year old, who had fallen between two stallions wedged either side of him and been trampled to death. This led Johnston to start a decades-long campaign to try and protect the wild horses and burros from the cattlemen and ranchers who were systematically removing them from public lands in order to profit from those same lands.
In 1900, the number of wild equines that roamed freely on 100's of millions of acres of US public lands was around 2 million. By the late 1950's, this number had been reduced to an estimated 25,000 which placed them firmly at threat of extinction in North America. This decimation in their numbers was largely due to the European expansion across the US and the subsequent explosion in cattle ranching that caused cattlemen and ranchers to remove and destroy them in order to replace them with livestock for food. Another contributing factor was the population boom at the end of WWII which led to wild horses and burros being rounded up and slaughtered to feed domestic pets, that had exploded in numbers also. The threat of their total eradication, along with the witnessing of their brutal removal to the local slaughterhouse is what first led Johnston to take the initiative to raise awareness of their plight, and her efforts resulted in a bill being passed in Nevada in 1955 that made roundups by cars, trucks, and airplanes illegal on both state and private lands.
Despite this initial win, the two federal agencies responsible for managing the federal lands that comprised around 85% of the land in Nevada, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who were charged with the protection of wild horses and burros, and the US Forest Service, were each exempted from this bill due to their immediate and total objection to it. Johnston responded by initiating a nationwide letter-writing campaign to Senators and members of Congress, mostly by school children. While her efforts did not succeed in preventing the BLM from removing wild horses and burros in support of the livestock industry, another bill was passed in 1959 that banned the common practice of poisoning watering holes frequented by the wild equines, and prohibited the use of motorized vehicles to hunt down and capture them on public lands. This second law became known as "The Wild Horse Annie Act".
Regardless of this change in the law, the ranchers continued their round up of wild horses and burros on public lands with impunity, as the BLM and the US Forest Service turned a blind eye, effectively aiding and abetting a blatant land grab for profit in spite of all the legal protections that had been put in place to protect the wild equines. Johnston continued to campaign for their protection and finally, in 1971, after an increasingly outraged public had sent more letters to Congress over the mistreatment of the nation’s wild equines than over any other issue in U.S. history, except for the Vietnam War (with one congressman alone receiving over 14,000 letters), the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act of 1971 was passed unanimously through Congress and signed into law by President Nixon. This act expressly prohibited the capture, branding, slaughter, sale, even disturbance of the wild free-roaming horses and burros, declaring:
“Wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”
Sadly, this turned out to be another short-lived win, as the BLM, who were still in control of the management of the wild horses and burros on public lands, remained closely aligned with the corporate and private interests that wanted to continue to profit from those same lands. Their new management policies started with them setting a population limit of between a mere 16,000-27,000 wild equines for the 27 million acres of public lands that had been intended for them to roam freely on. This was the same number they had been reduced to in the 1950's when they had been considered “fast disappearing” which had been an integral part of Johnston's campaigning. The BLM referred to this new policy as "Appropriate Management Levels" (AML's) for those areas where wild horses and burros could be found, and it continues to set the standard for their removal practices. They followed this with an adoption program in 1973, to draw the public in on the exciting prospect of "owning" a wild equine, despite how they had been charged with protecting these animals in the wild.
In a final insult to all those who had advocated for the freedom and protection of the nation's wild horses and burros, the 1971 Act was amended in 1976 by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to once again allow the use of, or to contract the use of, helicopters and vehicles, in their roundups.
During the Bush administration, the BLM and livestock ranchers began to use propaganda to enlist support from environmental groups for their continued removal of the wild equines and to support the BLM's adoption program. This included false claims that these animals are a non-native and invasive species, despite the fact that equids are a native species to the Americas. In addition, they began to blame them for degrading the public lands, despite the fact that 80% of their habitat had been leased off to the livestock industry, oil and gas projects, the mining industry, and other extractive industrial practices, over the time that the BLM has been charged with their protection. Along with the oil and gas lobbies, the livestock industry has continued to largely determine BLM policy over the decades, who in turn have continued to acquiesce to their demands. In 2001, the BLM received a 50% increase in their annual budget to $29 million to increase their aggressive removal campaign.
In 2004, the 1971 Act of Congress was surreptitiously amended without any hearing or opportunity for public review. This change in policy, known as the "Burns Amendment", allowed the BLM to start selling older, "unadoptable" animals at auction, placing them at high risk of being bought for as little as $10 each each by unscrupulous kill buyerswho would transport them across the US borders to sell them for slaughter. Following this amendment, the systemic removal, long term holding, sale, transport, and slaughter of tens of thousands of wild horses and burros exploded. The BLM began to “zero out” wild herds, meaning the complete elimination of wild horses and burros from particular herd management areas (HMA's) so that land could be handed over to oil, gas, and mining projects, and more livestock. In 2004, more than 9,000 wild equines were removed from public lands in Nevada. In 2005, the BLM’s budget increased once again by another third. By 2009, the government's holding facilities were almost full and overcrowding and disease was rampant as the public was failing to adopt wild horses and burros in the numbers that were required to keep freeing up space for more.
In 2010, the BLM received another 30 percent boost, leading to a total of $64 million of US taxpayer money being allocated to the continued round up and removal of wild horses and burros. By 2012, news began to surface about how the BLM had been knowingly selling the wild equines they had been entrusted with protecting to known livestock haulers who had been transporting them, stuffed into cattle trucks, in the same terrible inhumane conditions that Velma Johnston had first witnessed in 1950, over the US borders to Mexico and Canada in what has since become known as the slaughter pipeline.
In 2013, after an 18 month review of the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report, at a cost of $2 million, which provided a scathing takedown of their management practices of he wild horses and burros on US public lands. This report stated that the BLM's Appropriate Management Levels (AML's) were "not supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change". Also stated in this report was the bitterly ironic statement that: "management practices are facilitating high rates of population growth." This highlights the absurdity of the BLM's false argument that they need to remove the wild equines for being overpopulated on the range, an argument that wild horse advocates already understood to be false, given how these animals are outnumbered by up to 50:1 on public lands by livestock. It also reveals the extraordinary resilience of this native species that has lived on US soil for around 5 million years.
In 2020, the BLM's federal budget for the removal of wild horses and burros was increased to facilitate the round-up of between 20,000-30,000 wild horses and burros from public lands each year for many years to come. While the livestock industry continues to be the main reason for their removal, the latest land grab on US public lands is fueled by the race for lithium, a natural mineral known as white gold, to power electric cars and lithium-ion batteries, despite the so-called green transition from fossil fuels being exposed as greenwashing, as in reality it represents little more than the shift from one highly destructive industrial energy source to another. Instead of protecting public land in the US by protecting the wild animals that live there, the land is being leased off to corporations to make way for massive, toxic, open pit mines that pollute the soil, air, and water, and it is the public, through their hard-earned tax dollars that are funding the ongoing practice of the removal of tens of thousands of wild equines each year, at a cost of well over $100 million a year.
In 2021 and 2022, the BLM conducted the largest roundups ever recorded in US history, citing overpopulation as the reason for their removal. In just one roundup alone, in the Wyoming Checkerboard region, more than 3,500 horses were captured and almost 40 were killed, including a wild mare who died of a ruptured uterus, and many who suffered broken necks and limbs. During the Wyoming Legislature’s session in early 2023, some lawmakers supported a new resolution to re-open the U.S. horse slaughter plants, that were closed in 2007, proclaiming this will ease the suffering of wild horses and burros who are being slaughtered in unregulated facilities across the border, though this does not take into account the fact that, due to their physiological make-up, and the need to bleed them out prior to slaughter to keep the meat from spoiling, there is simply no way to make the slaughter of horses humane.
At the onset of summer 2023, there were a mere 82,384 wild equines still remaining on the 245 million acres of public land designated for them to roam freely and safely on through the 1971 Act of Congress. In simple terms, this equates to around one wild horse or burro for every 3,000 acres.
At time of writing, the BLM is preparing to conduct a roundup of all the wild horses that have been roaming the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park for centuries, a herd that is considered to be a significant part of the historical and natural heritage of the park and the state, and which is a huge tourism draw for North Dakota. While many believe these wild horses are descendants of Sitting Bull’s horses, and related to the rare Nokota breed, the BLM plans to eliminate them entirely. Every single one.
“In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, not to be on the side of the executioners.”