At our panel “Can the law save America’s wild horses?” at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Oregon on March 7, Friends of Animals discussed the origins of the Wild Horse and Burro Act  (WHBA) of 1971 and why it has failed to protect America’s wild horses. But the good news is listing wild horses as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act would provide the necessary legislation to end the exploitation of wild horses. 

The reason the WHBA came to be is that in the 1920s, well over 100,000 horses were slaughtered and sold for chicken-feed, pet food and human consumption. Hunters and ranchers started killing wild horses and driving them off the land based on the belief that wild horses would compete with the commercial livestock or damage the land. It was not clear that there were too many horses, or that the land was incurring damage due to the presence of the horses. Nonetheless, the United States Forest Service and the United States Grazing Service—the predecessor to the Bureau of Land Management—responded to pressure from ranchers by removing tens of thousands of wild horses from federal property and allowing people to poison water holes and slaughter them without limit. 

As part of the plan to clear the range of wild horses, the government collaborated with rendering plants that paid hunters six cents a pound to remove horses. According to one BLM official, “within a period of four years BLM removed more than 100,000 abandoned and unclaimed wild horses from Nevada ranges. Officials estimated that fewer than 4,000 wild horses remained in Nevada by 1950.                    

Many people, like Velma Bronn Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie became outraged at the practice of extinguishing wild horses, and encouraged Congress to pass the Hunting Wild Horses and Burros on Public Lands Act in 1959. The Act, which became known as Wild Horse Annie Act, banned the hunting of wild horses on federal land from aircraft or motorized vehicles. 

After passage of this law, however, ranchers and others continued to sell and slaughter wild horses.  

Johnston continued her campaign, and in 1971, upon finding that “horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene” and that they “contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people,” Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. 

Under the WHBA, the Secretary of the Interior is vested with authority to protect wild horses and burros on public land. However the Act is often ignored or misused. That’s because after passage of the WHBA, BLM was given a transitional period from 1971-1974 to take an inventory and assess boundary lines for wild horses. During this time the “public” was given opportunity to claim “private property” from the ranges. There have been interviews given where individuals claim personal knowledge of horses being moved or shot prior to assessments of the land “where presently found” as a tool to keep horses from being “found” on certain allotments. Range boundary lines were drawn that did not follow any scientific method. Boundaries were drawn where animals stood at the time of the assessment without any comprehension of seasonal movement in a population labeled as “free-roaming.” 

The result of such arbitrary boundaries has been a management nightmare. And it’s created a nightmare for wild horses, the animals the law is supposed to be protecting. Unfortunately the WHBA also prevented the expansion of wild horse habitat by stipulating that “nothing in the Act shall be construed to authorize the Secretary [of the Interior] to relocate wild free-roaming horses or burros to areas of the public lands where they do not presently exist.”  Today amount of habitat available for wild horses continues to dwindle, not only because of commercial ranchers who are grazing their cattle and sheep, but land is being altered to use for energy development and urbanization.

The biggest regulatory failure of the WHBC stems from the authority issued to BLM to label wild horses on public lands as “excess,” opening the door to their removal and/or slaughter. This authority, however, is being used and abused, as BLM routinely makes such determinations with little scientific support. A recent National Research Council report on the Wild Horse and Burro Program determined that BLM has no evidence of excess wild horses and burros, primarily because BLM has failed to use scientifically sound methods to estimate the population sizes.

But BLM’s calculation of “excess” is not based on protecting the wild horses, but instead is designed to protect the health of the range, which again is artificially limited, to ensure that both cattle grazing and some minimal number of wild horses can co-exist. Of the 245 million acres of public land managed by the BLM, 155 million (virtually all BLM land outside of Alaska) is open to livestock grazing. 

By contrast, wild horses are restricted to just 26.9 million acres, which they must share with livestock. Even though wild horses are restricted to a small fraction (11%) of BLM and USFS land, the agency routinely allocates the vast majority of forage on this land to privately-owned livestock instead of wild horses. A survey of 50 wild horse herd management areas showed that approximately 82.5% of forage was reserved for livestock grazing, while just 17.5% of the forage was allocated to the horses themselves.