The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act: Subverted Over Fifty Years

By Craig Downer

Fifty years ago—December 18, 1971—the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which passed unanimously in the U.S. Congress, was signed into law. We should be celebrating but, unfortunately, the law is woefully subverted by the federal agencies that manage public lands. America’s wild horse and burro program are now in dire straits, especially the mustang and burro herds that are supposed to be wild and free, natural living and thriving presences in their respected habitats on federal lands. This federal law was spearheaded by animal welfare activist Velma Bronn Johnston, also known as Wild Horse Annie. Velma was my good friend and mentor. As a wildlife ecologist and  Nevadan, I remain a constant advocate regarding wild equines in her honor.  I urge others to take action and help restore the protections  she fought for more than five decades ago. 

Restoring the Intent of the Law 

The situation is urgent. Restoring wild, naturally-living horses and burros and preserving their viable habitats are essential.

By returning to the intent of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, we can step towards a healthy and more balanced ecosystem. That was the intent behind the 1971 law, which enjoyed public support and has even more proponents 50 years later. The Act’s jubilee year can be a rallying point for those who want the law to be restored to its original power and intent. And to break “capture” by the traditional enemies of the federal land agencies responsible for the wild horse and burro program.. In the decades since my work with Wild Horse Annie, I have learned many lessons about our equine neighbors, and more evidence that the Wild Horse Act benefits humans and the ecosystem has come to light. 

Here Are Some of Those Facts

The law mandates the integration of wild horses and burros into the public land’s ecosystem as the principal resource recipients and with management and interference at the “minimum feasible level” with their natural lifestyles and habitat. Other laws, that include the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act along with the National Historical Preservation Act all should be enforced therefore upholding the rights of wild horses and burros throughout the West to viable populations in viable habitats. 

The horse family, Equidae, is of North American origin. Many species of equids, including the modern horse, evolved on this continent, fill a valuable niche here, and have a right to roam free today. Wild horses and burros complement North America’s landscape, in obvious as well as subtle ways. Their unique digestive systems, for example, enable them to eat coarser, drier vegetation and break this down into the nutrients they need. That process benefits other grazing herbivores as well as energize and enrich the ecosystem as a whole. 

The wild equids act as keystone species, benefiting hundreds, even thousands of species of plants, animals, and microorganism’s, with which they have co-evolved. They contribute to many necessary food chains. 18 19  which include canids, felids, raptors, and many other important ecosystem components. During colder seasons, the wild equines often open up iced-over water holes or ice-crusted vegetation so that many weaker animals can continue to eat and drink. During hot weather, they can sniff out water sources and dig down to them, even through hard and rocky soils, thus allowing critical access to water for a host of plants and animals. As mutualists, their powerful and energetic bodies open up thickets which allows other animals to move around in bushlands and access important food sources. They also wallow in places such as those with clay, where their wallows create natural water catchments benefiting many plants and animals. Thousands of pines are being eliminated by BLM to provide more grass for livestock – but to many species’ detriment. 

The rounded, blunt hooves of equids cut less deep and sharply into the moist meadow and streamside soils when compared with cloven-hoofed animals. Their hoof prints often plant seeds at perfect depths for germination.

The rounded, blunt hooves of equids cut less deep and sharply into the moist meadow and streamside soils when compared with cloven-hoofed cattle, sheep, elk, deer, and pigs; their hoof prints often plant seeds at perfect depths for germination. In addition, wild horses disperse their grazing pressure over large areas within their home ranges and, unless forced into it, do not tend to camp around water sources, like domestic cattle. They also forage in patchy manner, and leave islands of palatable grass, forbs, etc., to set seed. This instinctive form of wise rest rotation lends to their survival for millions of years. Moreover, their possession of upper and lower incisors permitting them to carefully prune plants in contrast to cattle and sheep, who lack upper incisors and often rip out roots. 

The Bureau of Land Management claims 53.4 million original acres were designated for wild horses and burros, yet several million more existed within U.S. Forest Service lands in 11 Western states, at the time the Act passed. The BLM now plans only 26.9 million acres for wild equids. Research reveals that about 88 million acres actually may have qualified for being legal habitats, as the wild equids were found there in 1971. Yet, BLM, USFS, and other government 

Wildfires and Grazing Research shows that wild horses and burros play a major role in mitigating, and often even preventing wildfires. Horses can help diminish the invasive cheat grass, which contributes to wildfires, by eating the plants before they have set seed, and by disseminating many other less invasive and native bunch types of grass among other forbs and shrubs. They also reduce the ladder-like lower branches on shelter trees, thus preventing “crown fires.” 

These are often junipers and edible-nut-providing pinyon agencies allow cattle and sheep to forage on about 300 million acres, which include nearly 100% of the wild horse and burro legal areas.  These agencies allocate approximately  85% to 90% of the forage for livestock. It is a direct violation of the Wild Horse Act, which states, “the wild equid legal areas shall be “devoted principally to the welfare and benefit” of wild horses and burros. Not the public land ranchers, oil and gas drillers, big game hunters, miners, off-road vehicle users, and others. 

fire. wildfire at sunset, burning pine forest in the smoke and flames.

Despite government efforts to conceal the gross inequity involved, “100-to-1” more accurately describes the ratio of resource allocation of livestock and big game to wild equids on the public lands. Public lands domestic livestock produce only 2% to 3% of beef in the US, and about 4% of the mutton. 

According to the Species Survival Commission, Equid Specialist Group: “For captive populations, we recommend a minimum population size …of 500 individuals … [but] for wild populations we recommend a minimum size of 2,500 individuals.” Federal agencies ignore those crucial and knowledgeable recommendations  with,not even adhering to their own standards of 150 to 200 individuals. In 1859, there were an estimated two to three million wild horses on the plains, prairies, deserts, and mountain ranges of the U.S., but by 1976, five years after the passage of the WFHBA, only about 60,000 remained. Though 17,000 is the official figure given by BLM for wild horses on the public lands at the pass of the Wild Horse Act in 1971, This is  considered  low by at least a factor of two, according to the Animal Welfare Institute. 

Since the pass of the Burns Amendment to the Wild Horse Act in 2004, many wild horses continue to be shipped over the border from the U.S. to Canada and Mexico, meeting a cruel and terrorizing end.

What is termed “agency capture” has occurred in our nation’s wild horse and burro program. Agency capture occurs when an agency is taken over by people and interests that the very agency is supposed to regulate, so it ends up being controlled by them. 

Wild horses and burros should be restored to their original herd areas throughout the West, including the approximately 80,000 horses and burros now in government corrals and long-term holding pastures. The legality of their refuges is based upon where they were found in 1971;  this should be interpreted as meaning year-round habitats. But these areas are today largely empty of wild equids: a fact that verifies the injustice of current circumstances.

Re-establishment of horses and burros in the North American Great Basin, Great Plains, Prairies, and other suitable western mountains and valleys, can help to combat the noxious effects of global climate change by greatly balancing and enhancing the native ecosystems. 

Solutions Exist

We must restore the wild horse and burro herds and their habitats through “Reserve Design and “rewilding” to allow for long-term, genetically-viable populations. And achieved in a way that permits these remarkable animals to integrate harmoniously into their natural habitats and to be naturally self-stabilizing in their numbers to attain a “truly thriving, natural, ecological balance,” as the Wild Horse Act requires. 

…And Can Be Achieved By:

  • Letting the equids reoccupy their fully federal-designated Herd Areas or Territories wherever possible and in no case less than 75% of the original home range established in 1971. 

  • Where a reduction in equid occupation is necessary, there shall be a compensatory acquisition of wild equid habitat of equal value or greater.

  • We must allow the horses and burros themselves and the world of nature to show us what works best for each given area and allow a natural equilibrium of species to establish itself, including natural predators such as puma, bobcat/lynx, coyote, wolf, and bear. Also, all the other herbivores that includes ruminant deer, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn as well as smaller species such as rodents and rabbits, birds, and reptiles, would be allowed to realize their respective roles and niches along with a great diversity of plant species. 

  • Exercising Sections 4 and 6 of the WFHBA, to establish Cooperative Agreements. Complete year-round habitats for long-term viable populations of wild horses and burros. Also, exercise Section 10 to establish Wild Horse and Burro Study herds and their corresponding habitats to learn the many enlightening lessons these equids have to teach us. 

  • Mount a positive, public education campaign with people who live and work around and visit the wild equid habitats so that they will positively participate in the realization of long-term-viable wild equid herds and their adequate, commensurate sanctuary habitats. Recruit volunteers who can monitor and protect herds, making possible gains in ecotourism and subsidies from the government by adopting this worthy goal. 

  • End the draconian, herd-gutting roundups, often by helicopter or bait or water-tapping, which disrupt the animals’ mature social units and destroy their natural form of self-regulation. 

  • Avoid implementing invasive castration, ovariectomies, IUDs, or fertility control drugs such as PZP and GonaCon. Those methods torture and debilitate, genetically alter, cause out-of-season, deformed, and still-born births – and often kill the wild horses and burros. Over the generations, such management causes social disruption. In short, it is a form of domestication that is entirely antithetical to the true and core purpose and intent of the Wild Horse Act.

  • In horses and burros, PZP injections will weaken the immune systems and in a few generations set them up for decline and demise as they will no longer be resistant to disease and stress.  We can foresee it becoming considerably more serious due to global climate change. “Reserve Design” is the solution, not the current cruel and disrespectful kind of treatment of the wild equids that places them at the very bottom position of priorities within their own legal areas.

  • Work to have America’s wild horses and wild burros declared as UNESCO World Heritage, as well as in the United States, National Heritage species. And remember, it is only in the wild, natural bio-diverse world that has established itself throughout millions of years that the true vigor of the species – and the living community we all share – is preserved. 

  • Existing but often ignored federal laws need enforcement To reduce or curtail livestock grazing within legal herd areas and territories.

  • Mandate purchases at a fair and just value of base properties with water rights, not in conflict with the establishment of viable wild horse and burro herds. This can be voluntary, but if necessary for the survival of the herds, it can be mandated. Where necessary, employ semi-permeable, artificial barriers in designing each wild horse/burro Herd Area or Territory as the true sanctuary the Act intends. The Log-&-Pole, buck rail-type fences employed in Montana BLM’s Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range work quite well. 

  • Do not overly restrict the wild equids by fencing or other means, within their viably sized, and complete habitats. Also, make it a policy to minimize or eliminate vehicle impacts, roads, off-road vehicles, and issues from mining or fracking within the wild equid areas. 

  • Design and employ buffer zones around the wild equid areas. On those, a gradual tapering off of wild equid presence would occur through the implementation of discouragements to their moving into areas where danger exists for them, such as in farms, towns, or communities. 

  • Employ existing law to incorporate lands from other government agencies, including state, county, and municipal, as well as private lands.