50 Years of the Wild Horse and Burro Act
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is “Celebrating” 50 years of the wild horse and burro act. They are touting what a wonderful job they have done protecting our wild horses and burros, but what’s really been going on for the past 50 years? What exactly have they accomplished?
Let’s first take a look at how it all began. I recently read a book that talks about the history of the mustangs in the west, and how they have endured, and survived decades of persecution and abuse. Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West covers the history of the horses from how they got here, there is proof they were reintroduced to this continent, to Velma Johnston’s fight to keep them safe and free. Velma fought hard for 10 years to get protections for our wild horses and burros. Her work was tireless, and I’m sure at times frustrating and all consuming. Finally in 1971, Pres. Nixon signed the Wild Horse and Burro act making it illegal to harrass, or kill our wild horses and burros. The BLM was given oversight of the program, which apparently Velma was ambivalent about, given that the BLM was also over livestock grazing on public land. Of course it was the livestock industry who had been persecuting the horses in the first place, because they wrongly saw them as competition for forage for their cattle and sheep.
In 1971 there were 329 herd area’s and HMA’s, or herd management areas. Now in my mind, an HMA should be exclusively for the wild horses and burros. These parcels of land were set aside for them, and no livestock should be allowed on them. But the act states that “the land is set aside principally, but not necessarily exclusively, to their welfare”. So, livestock has been allowed on HMA’s, which is the root cause of all the problems currently facing our wild mustangs. This interactive map shows the livestock that is grazed on HMA’s. By 1996 there were 266 HMA’s, and since then 110 have been zeroed out. Let that sink in. Zeroed out, completely. Currently, there are 177 HMA’s in 10 western states. This is a significant loss not only in land set aside for them, but in the mustangs and burros themselves.
We are two years into “The Path Foward” which is a disastrous 10 year plan that will pretty much wipe out all our wild equids in the west. In the last few years the BLM has significantly ramped up their roundups of our wild mustangs and burros, and now there are around 60,000 of them in government holding facilities. The cost of this to the American taxpayer is enormous.
The stallions are gelded, foals are taken from their moms, families are broken and scattered, freedom lost. Forever. These horses and burros will never know the freedom they had ever again.
For fiscal year 2021, which ended September 30th, 17,917 wild horses and burros lost their freedom. Most of these will end up in overcrowded holding facilities, dejected, confused, and torn from the only life they know. On top of this staggering number, the largest roundup in history is set to begin in Wyoming’s red desert complex on Oct. 7th. The BLM is planning on removing over 3500 wild mustangs from this area. Why? The livestock people want them gone.
Velma fought so hard to stop the Mustangers from rounding up and killing our wild horses and burros, only to have the BLM take over that position, and do it with the blessing, and funding of the government.
But what about the wonderful adoption program that the BLM claims finds caring, loving homes for all of them? In 2019 the BLM started the Adoption Incentive Program. Adopters are given $500 after 6 months, and then another $500 at the one year mark. They are also given the title to the horse or burro, and can then do whatever they want with them. Since the implementation of this program, the number of wild mustangs ending up in kill pens has increased dramatically. Unscrupulous people have seen the program as just another way to make money. They have zero intention of keeping the horses, and get the $1000 from the BLM, plus whatever the kill buyers pay per pound. Of course not every horse is treated this way, and I’m sure a lot have been given nice homes. But the fact that even one ended up at slaughter, is just too much.
Given all these facts, and numbers I would say that the BLM spin machine is working extra hard to convince the public they are the good guys.
The reasoning this year for too many of the big roundups was to save the horses from starvation, which is complete and utter BS. Horses in the HMA’s that were designated “emergency” were photographed as fat, healthy, and doing just fine. But the BLM are masters at telling lies, and convincing everyone they are in the right. Thankfully, more and more Americans are becoming aware of what’s really happening to our wild horses and burros, and opposition to the BLM and their brutal, inhumane roundups is increasing. Our voices are getting louder, and we are being heard now more than ever before.
So in 50 years have the BLM been good stewards, and done what they should have to protect our wild mustangs and burros? I don’t think so. The program is flawed, and a disaster. The number of horses that can actually live in any given HMA has never been scientifically evaluated since whoever pulled those AML numbers out of their butt years ago. The BLM panders to the livestock industry, tossing the horses aside so welfare ranchers can destroy our public lands. The entire program needs scrapping, and rebuilding with the safety and welfare of the horses and burros in the forefront. An independent, non government study needs to take place on every HMA, and the horses and burros just need to be left alone.
It all seems so simple, and common sense. But will it ever happen? Will government bureaucracy ever step aside for the greater good of wild places, and those who live there?
I would like to thank Scott Wilson/WilsonAxpe Photography for allowing me to use his images from the recent Sand Wash Basin roundup. Photographing our wild mustangs as they experience this brutality, is so important in telling their story.