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
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.