An Act of Congress
“Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; (and) that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people ...”
(Public Law 92-195, December 15, 1971)
In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act and prohibited the hunting and killing of wild horses on public land. The wild mustang population, down to an estimated 17,000, began to rise.
Charged with oversight of the wild horses, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) faced many challenges. Scandal ensued over a BLM employee’s role in the Howe Massacre of 1973, an illegal and deadly wild mustang round-up. Long court battles followed.
The Supreme Court upheld the federal law as superior to any state law in regard to wildlife. However, an amendment to the original bill allowed wild mustangs to be rounded up by helicopter, a method deemed more humane than the airplane-driven round-ups.
By the late 1970s, the BLM claimed wild American mustangs had overpopulated the available land, and it was necessary to cut back. Political factions pushed for public lands to become private or to be leased for private use, further restricting the land available for mustangs. Horses were herded by helicopter and severe injuries occurred, including the miscarriages of pregnant mares. Public outcry reached new levels in the late 1970s and 1980s.
The BLM mustang adoption program also struggled. Mustangs were kept in crowded holding corrals without room for exercise. Beautiful, proud animals lost their luster and appeal. Mustangs – young, old, healthy or otherwise – were destroyed.
In addition, mustang adoption quantity restrictions were abused. “Lot buyers” unlawfully adopted the maximum number of horses in the names of siblings, spouses, children and other family members. After a year, many of these mustangs were sold to slaughterhouses.
When this manipulation of the laws was uncovered, outside investigators were brought in. The 1997 Culp Report demanded the BLM uphold regulations for adoption, horse repossession and yearly quantity limitations. The BLM hired more staff to inspect holding sites and follow-up and began utilizing the Internet to advertise adoption and support new or prospective owners. You can read more about the BLM’s current adoption program at www.blm.gov/adoptahorse.
Despite these advances, however, a 2005 rider tacked onto a federal appropriations bill virtually cancelled the protections of the 1971 law. The Burns Rider, named for Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, again made it possible for mustangs to be captured and delivered to slaughterhouses.
Today, the BLM claims there are more wild mustangs than can be adopted or that available lands can support. An estimated 33,000 wild American mustangs roam across 10 western states. Crowded holding corrals are still found, and round-ups (now called “gathers”) continue. The cost to taxpayers to maintain mustangs in captivity escalates.
What is the solution? Contraceptives are being tried for some mares to slow population growth, but many mustang advocates say that if the horses are left alone, nature will take care of leveling off the numbers. As mustangs share land with herds of domesticated cattle, the BLM worries about overgrazing and starvation. There is talk of mass euthanasia. Activists are working for repeal of the Burns Rider.
At Mustang Leadership Partners, we support the efforts of those who seek humane and sensible solutions for population control and protection of the majestic wild American mustang.
Read more about wild American Mustangs Today:
• Born Survivors on the Eve of Extinction by Hardy Oelke, published in 1997 by Ute Kierdorf Verlag, Germany.
• America’s Last Wild Horses, by Hope Ryden, first published in 1970, with updated editions in 1978, 1990 and 1999, published by the Lyons Press.
• Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, by Deanne Stillman, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
• Honest Horses: Wild Horses in the Great Basin, by Paula Morin, published in 2006 by University of Nevada Press.
• Among Wild Horses: A Portrait of the Pryor Mountain Mustangs by Lynne Pomeranz, published in 2006 by Storey Publishing, Inc.
• The Nature of Horses: Their Evolution, Intelligence and Behaviour by Stephen Budiansky, published in 1997 by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.
• Mustangs: Wild Horses of the West by Marie-Luce Hubert and Jean-Louis Klein, published in 2007 by Firefly Books.