Think Our Wild Horses Are Safe?

Forty years after its passage, The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act is a shadow of its former self, undercut by amendments, the Bureau of Land Management, and the cattle industry



Forty years ago this Saturday, on December 17, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon was moved to quote Henry David Thoreau. "We need the tonic of wildness," the president announced in a statement released from Biscayne Bay, Florida, on the day he signed into law the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the first federal law designed to protect and manage our wild horses. Nixon wrote that the new law was "an effort to guarantee [the] future" of the horses. and he credited grassroots public support for the political impetus behind the measure. The White House also offered this:

Wild horses and burros merit man's protection historically--for they are a living link with the days of the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the Western Indians and the pioneers, to our own day when the tonic of wildness seems all too scarce. More than that, they merit it as a matter of ecological right--as anyone knows who has ever stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free.

Here is what the late, great Velma Johnston, the redoubtable "Wild Horse Annie," said to Congress before the passage of the legislation she worked so tirelessly to push upon federal lawmakers:

[The Act] climaxed ten years of struggle against the powerful forces aligned against any effort to curtail the slaughter -- forces comprised of the domestic livestock industry, the target animal industry, and pet food manufacturers, and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management -- custodian of the public lands - which looked upon the commercial harvesting of the animals as an expedient means of range clearance to make more forage potential available to the vested interest groups....

Decades of bloody and indiscriminate annihilation of wild horses and burros, under the agency's direction in order to make more grazing land available for domestic livestock, was [a] black chapter in the history of man's abuse of animals until an act of Congress in 1959 outlawed that expedient means of 'management and control.' It is unlikely the public would support any move to restore a practice that would again, inevitably, lead to over-zealous programs through its very expediency."

Forty years later, Nixon is gone and "Annie" is probably spinning in her grave. Since 1971, the Wild Horses Act has been 1) dramatically undercut by the 2004 Burns Amendment, which re-authorized the sale of captured horses for slaughter, 2) persistently undermined by the Bureau of Land Management, and 3) challenged at nearly every turn by the ranching and cattle industries, which persist in seeking to rid the horses from public and private land even as their members line up on the dole for subsidized grazing fees.

Powerful political and economic forces, arrayed at virtually every level of government, have overwhelmed the organizations which advocate on behalf of the nation's wild horses. As interpreted and applied, then, the Act no longer protects the horses the way it was supposed to. And the federal agency statutorily entrusted to guard over the horses no longer merits the trust, if it ever did. Lobbyist-riddled statutory language and weak regulatory oversight is an invitation to disaster, is it not? We need to pay attention. Stop me if this sounds familiar.

The 1971 statute gave the Bureau of Land Management vast authority to "manage" the herds. But the BLM was not then -- and is not now -- a true friend of the horses. Instead, as is so often the case, the regulators are aligned with, if not beholden to, to the industry they purport to regulate. The Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, is from a ranching family. So is Wyoming governor Matt Mead and so is Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming's lone representative in the House. The patent indifference to the plight of the horses is, indeed, a bipartisan affair.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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