Are We Leading Our Wild Horses to Slaughter?

As a new book makes clear, Velma Johnston, a.k.a. "Wild Horse Annie," must be rolling over in her grave at the peril thousands of America's mustangs once again face today.

Wild horses being herded outside Tooele, Utah in February (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

The video below depicts a gruesome roundup in northeastern Nevada of a small band of the nation's wild horses: mustangs who, under federal law and policy, must be protected and managed by the very government agents whose helicopters here terrorize, corral, and injure them. This grim roundup, at the Antelope and Antelope Valley Herd Management Area, occurred in early October. It came just a few days after ProPublica, the non-profit, investigative journalism endeavor, published a damning piece accusing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of selling captured wild horses to a known horse slaughterer, which is prohibited by law.

Approximately 180 horses were rounded up in the fashion you're about to watch below. (Or not. I would not show this video to my son, who loves horses.) The Obama Administration's Department of the Interior, led by a rancher, says it must reduce the size of the herd in this particularly violent and dangerous fashion to save the horses from drought and the effects of wildfires, and to bring the herd's number "back into balance with other range land resources and uses." The plan this fall is to "gather" thousands of America's wild horses from nearly 20 venues across the American West, and herd them into dirty, unsafe holding pens -- all at taxpayer expense.

As a matter of logic and economics, this makes no sense. The horses cost us practically nothing when they are left alone in the wild. They cost a fortune to trap and hold. And they are being rounded up at a rate much greater than the rate they can be adopted out, even to genuine horse lovers who have the time and space to give them a home. Today in America, there are perhaps 20,000 more wild horses in domestic pens than there are out on the rangeland. Here, then, is a government program that has gone out of its way to create a "welfare" class in America -- and then seen its federal stewards complain about the costs.

As a matter of politics, however, what's being done to our wild horses makes perfect sense. The ranching and livestock industries, long holders of political power in Congress, want the horses off their grazing land, even though "their" land happens mostly to be "your" land, owned by the federal or state government. These forces always have been opposed to the presence of wild horses on the vast checkerboard of Western rangelands. They have never fully accepted the 1971 federal law designed to protect and mange those horses. And, today, amid feckless regulation and Congressional indifference, they typically get their way.


If there is one thing this election campaign has taught us, and if the past four rancorous years have reminded us of one immutable truth, it is that while change may be inevitable, progress isn't. Those who lose in American politics, those whose ideas are rejected, those whose time has come and gone, rarely go away forever. Instead, they seem always to come back to us, back to the bullhorns, back with renewed vigor, in one form or another; to fight again, to carry the flag for old prejudices or new grievances or some combination of both, to restore whatever old order they want restored.

There is no rest for the weary -- or the victors. So many of the rights and freedoms, securities and protections, rules and regulations won in one generation must be re-won a generation later from reactionary forces seeking a return to the good old days. On some issues, the debate rolls on through the decades; through the centuries, really. The things our parents fought over sooner or later become our fights. Their victories, ours either to defend or to attack; their losses, ours either to lament or to revenge. No matter who wins the coming election, it will be so -- the end to our great national divisions being nowhere in sight.

It's always hard to personify this struggle, and especially to personify it in a way that isn't overtly ideological, but let me now give it a shot. I just finished reading Alan Kania's new book, Wild Horse Annie: Velma Johnston And Her Fight to Save the Mustang, a straightforward and indispensable account of one woman's extraordinary success, 40 years ago, in helping to protect America's wild horses from the human predators surrounding them. What happened to Johnston, and now to the federal law she pushed Congress to pass and President Nixon to sign, shows us why we often have to charge back again over hard-fought ground.

Even when Johnston won, she knew she had not really won. Even with the passage of her landmark law, the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Johnston knew that the industries arrayed against wild horses were not going to give up. She knew the horses were still in danger despite the protections they had just received from Congress. She knew that the BLM was, as ever, aligned closely with the industry it was supposed to regulate. She knew all this, and she was right. The value of Kania's work, apart from his tender view of his subject, is that it shows us, relentlessly, how law can be and is subverted by political forces.

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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