Think Our Wild Horses Are Safe?

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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

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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.

In these circumstances, and with this personnel, what chance do the horses have? Not much. Not unless a grassroots political push, the sort of movement that Wild Horse Annie once led, crashes the special-interest party at play here. I have come late in life to this cause, and I have written about it over and over and over and over again this year, because I believe that the way our wild horses have been treated lately by government and business often mirrors the way in which millions of ordinary people have been treated lately by government and business.

So, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the governing legislation, I asked Karen Sussman, the president of the International Society for the protection of Mustangs and Burros, which Velma Johnston founded half a century ago, to share her thoughts about what "Annie" might think of the plight of today's wild horses. Sussman replied::

Annie would see no difference today in the political forces as they have always remained the same. There have always been the forces who wanted horses and burros off the land and that hasn't changed. Now instead of packing six shooters, politics is more refined but more dangerous then earlier. At least she knew where she stood.

She was asked shortly after the Act passed what she thought would be the course of events for the future. She said the Act will be as carried out only to the degree of effort by those who are in charge. She meant the BLM. She had little faith that they would protect wild horses because the agency at that time was made up of the forces that wanted the horses removed.

And I asked Suzanne Roy, the campaign director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign which often spearheads litigation against ranchers and the BLM on behalf of the horses, to share her vision of the future:

If the trajectory of the past 40 years continues, few, if any, truly wild, free-roaming horses will exist in the coming decades. Half of all lands designated as wild horse and burro habitat have been eliminated over the past four decades, and administration after administration has allowed the systematic removal and elimination of wild horses and burros from our public lands in the West.

It will take strong action by the American public to force Congress and the administration to reverse four decades of mismanagement and inhumane treatment of America's wild horses and burros. Solving this problem will mean standing up for the public interest and standing firm against powerful special interests, particularly the cattlemen's lobby, which works to undermine initiatives to protect wild horses and burros.

Forty years ago, Velma Johnston understood from her decades of battle that the Wild Horses Act would mark the beginning and not the end of the story. She knew that that the law would be only as strong as the men and women who would enforce it and that it would be buffeted by strong political winds. Those winds have come-- from both Republicans and Democrats-- and now the big question is whether the same popular passion and resolve that rescued our horses 40 years ago can be mustered up again on their behalf.

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

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