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Mustang History, Part II


Up until the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, the entire Great Basin was open range. Much of what is now desert or semi-desert, was short-grass prairie in the mid-1800's, when ranchers and homesteaders began to arrive. Anyone, whether they owned land or not, could graze livestock - usually cattle, sheep, and/or horses - on the open range.

The good thing about this for people is that it allowed anyone, rich or poor, the make a living as a "rancher." The good thing for wild horse herds is that they were valued and managed, with careful selection for type and overall quality. They often were not "wild" at all, but rather, owned and managed herds allowed to range freely.

The bad thing for the ecosystem is that there was no way a person could "steward" the land effectively, because if a stockman wanted pulled his stock off an area when he felt it needed a rest, someone else would move their stock in to eat what was left. Years of overgrazing resulted in the short grass prairie giving way to semi-desert, and the semi-desert to total desert. The range was being destroyed.  And the range is huge - over 80 Million acres of American Public Land in 11 western states.

TGA (Taylor Grazing Act) enacted a system of permits with fees and enforcement penalties. Permits were only issued for part of the year, in order to allow the land to recover during winter and early spring.  In order to get a permit, a rancher had to own a base property, where stock could be kept during time off the range.

The TGA was clearly a law aimed at ridding the range of un-landed itinerate stockmen. As Charles F. Moore, Everet L. Brown, and Henry E. Snyder report in their "EARLY HISTORY of TAYLOR GRAZING ACT in COLORADO" ( ), "Livestock operation was the major industry in the eleven western states so it was easy to see there was a great deal of interest as so many operations depended entirely on the public lands. ... Immediately after the depression, we had many roving sheep men who traveled almost the year round. In this area, they were known as Utah sheep men during the summer, and Colorado sheep men during the winter in Utah. They were the same men, and a pain in the neck, whether it was winter or summer. The local stockmen who owned a base for their operations were gradually going out of business, as roving sheep men passed by. They over-grazed the area and moved on to the next leaving the local operator without feed and soon out of business."

The Taylor Grazing Act marked the beginning of what is now the Bureau of Land Management. At the time, it was simply a federal agency set up to manage public lands grazing through a system of permits and fees.


The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros says this about TGA:

  • 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act (TGA) ... was adopted with the help of powerful ranchers with the express intent of eliminating nomadic herding and stopping indiscriminate settlement and grazing, stabilizing the grazing industry, restoring damaged lands, and other goals. (BLM 1976)

  • The TGA also created the Division of Grazing under the Dept of Interior – this created grazing allotments and charged nominal fees for grazing. 

  • Leases were issued to the privileged few, generally the most powerful and wealthy cattlemen, especially those who helped to create the TGA.  The TGA established that only those ranchers with “base properties” – well established, substantial private ranch holdings near the public lands to be grazed- were eligible for leases.

  • The only power that the TGA enforced was to rid nomadic grazing but ranchers did as they pleased and refused to have any control over their ranches.

  • Shanks 1984 says, “In a classic example of western control of federal land, the TGA retained elite stock raisers’ dominance using a permit system, a small fee, and a weak agency to manage the program.
    Note: ISPMB started out as an advocacy group founded by Velma Johnson (Wild Horse Annie) with a high level of credibility. ISPMB's interpretation of TGA certainly includes bias, but it is important historically.


The Taylor Grazing Act had a number of immediate and sometimes unanticipated side effects:

The "nomadic" land-less cowboys who had run cattle, sheep, and/or horses on the open range, but who owned no land, were immediately put out of business. They had to gather up their stock and remove it if they could. Otherwise, the animals - usually horses - remained in place, to become "unclaimed ferals." The horses who were not removed during the winter became seen as a pest, as unclaimed feral animals who were eating grass that people wanted for their stock. For the first time, the wild horse's right to be there came into question, as it paid no grazing fees.

The Road To Hell is often paved with good intentions. The Taylor Grazing Act solved some of the worst abuses of public land. But it favored wealthier land owners, putting many landless cowboys out of business. And, for the first time, it placed the wild horse in an adversarial position, pitted against ranchers for meager desert resources.

After 1934 there was a huge effort to rid the range of these "pests" and tens of thousands of horses were shot, rounded up, or otherwise gotten rid of during the next decade. During WWII people had more pressing things to do, so wild herd numbers increased again. But in the post-war years, the pet food industry's use of wild horse meat rapidly expanded, and by the mid-1960's, people were thinking that the wild horse would go extinct.

At first no one cared, or if they did, they did nothing. But gradually people's attitudes began to change, and the wild horse began to be admired for its tough ability to survive in the face of concerted efforts to eliminate it. A more romantic, sympathetic image of the Mustang developed in the public psyche, and they began to be seen as a symbol of America's spirit, and the last reminders of our pioneer past, representing the days of the open range and the era of cowboys and Indians, an animal who deserved protection.


The coming of the automobile and motorized tractor - especially in the immediate post-WWII years - resulted in many unwanted horses, particularly drafts and carriage horses, but also saddle horses, being abandoned from farms and ranches. Many, Many horses that were no longer needed went to slaughter during this historical period - to the extent that many observers speculated the horse as a species might be nearing extinction. But some ranchers opted to simply release the stock onto the range, to fend for themselves. Those who survived mixed with the wild herds and added to the diversity of modern wild herds.


From the beginnings of the commercial pet food market in the 1930's until the 1970’s, wild horses were frequently captured and slaughtered for pet food, as well as for fertilizer. The capture, transportation, and slaughter processes were particularly cruel (The Marilyn Monroe flick "The Misfits" has some fairly accurate depictions of the process of "mustanging.") and horse numbers were steadily decreasing. These commercial "mustangers" differed from traditional "mustangers" (who captured good young stock to train and sell as saddle stock, and who culled the herds for quality)  in that they had no interest in preserving the herds, or selecting for quality. These new mustangers valued only the money that was to be made selling the horses for slaughter. There was no interest in the animals' welfare.

The Development of Wild Horse Protection & Management:

A certain amount of "Mustanging" has always occurred in wild horse country. Often the "mustangers" were local ranchers who also captured horses to train for their own use or to sell as saddle stock, but would occasionally also sell them as meat. They may also have actively managed the wild herds in their area, releasing domestic stallions of their choosing into the herds, and culling out the less desirable individuals. In this way, populations remained under control and wild horses were respected for the most part. Most ranchers enjoyed seeing them out on the range, although the Taylor Grazing Act of 1034 built in some potential conflicts.

During the 20th Century, the keeping of house pets became more and more prevalent. House pets needed food, and the dog food industry, which began in the 1930's, found a ready source of meat in America's wild horses.

At first no one cared. That's all they were good for, people believed, or maybe it was just out of sight, out of mind. In the post-war years, there was a growing movement of people who were concerned about the cruelty involved in the pet food industry's capturing and butchering of wild horses, as well as concern that they might be eliminated forever.



Burros: Although burros were not exploited for their meat, they were treated just as badly. Claims of competition with native big game Bighorn Sheep resulted in systematic extermination programs. In 1953 California became the first state in the union to pass burro protection legislation. This was followed in 1957 with the establishment of a 2 million-acre burro preserve on Federal land in Southern California.

Tired of the cruelty and concerned about the possibility of wild horse extinction, Velma Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie" led a campaign of public awareness. Her groups, ISPMB (International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros) and WHOA (Wild Horse Organized Assistance) worked with Congress, with local governments, and with other groups to enact a range of humane protection laws, from local regulations concerning capture methods, to the establishment of the first Wild Horse Preserves.

Velma Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie" is the iconic figure associated with the movement, but in no way acted alone. Hundreds, even thousands of citizens across the country were active in wild horse advocacy, some of them just as influential as Annie.

Who was Annie? Annie was a ranch wife, who had suffered from polio as a child, and suffered disfigurement from the disease. But she didn't let it stop her. She was an avid horsewoman, and a charismatic leader. Always a lady, Annie was described by a contemporary, Karen Sussman, like this: "Annie was a charismatic leader. As she entered a room, opponents melted at her presence. She was always dressed as a lady and yet her soft words would reverberate like thunder through the souls of those who encountered her. " (from the International Society For the Protection of Mustangs and Burros website) The story of how Annie followed a trail of blood leaking from a large truck, to discover the horrors of the "mustanging" trade is legendary. Annie did mobilize a tremendous effort to protect wild horses, which started small, with simple (though hard to pass) laws, and gradually building support for more extensive legislation.

Again from Karen Sussman's biography of Wild Horse Annie, account, "Velma was sarcastically nicknamed “Wild Horse Annie” by one of her bitterest opponents, Dan Solari, who went on to become an employee of the Montana Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As a constant reminder that her battle would be pitted against hundreds of Solari’s, she insisted that her friends call her Annie. She became affectionately known as Wild Horse Annie..."


The first wild horse protection laws affected only the Reno area, and later became State Law. These early local and regional laws did nothing to help wild horses on Federal land, but they were a start.

In 1959, Congress passed the “Wild Horse Annie Act” (PL 86-234) to provide for the humane treatment of wild horses on federal lands. In effect, it made it illegal to use motorized vehicles to capture wild horses as well as a few other things such as poisoning of water holes. It did not provide for the management of wild horses, nor did it prohibit the capture of wild horses. It simply tried to put a stop to inhumane capture methods.

The Nevada Wild Horse Range on Nellis Air Force Base & Testing Site, was created in 1962, so "at least one wild herd would remain safe forever." The horses living there, unlike in the Pryor Mtns or Little Bookcliffs (who both claim "special" history and genetics) the Nellis herd was a "typical" Nevada herd.

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range was created in 1968, after several years of struggle between wild horse advocates and their opponents.

In 1964, BLM ordered the removal of 140-200 horses on the Pryor Mountain range. Fearful that the roundup was a prelude to slaughter of the entire herd, in 1966 Johnston began a letter-writing and public relations campaign against the BLM. Johnston's goal was to establish a permanent refuge for the Pryor Mountains herd, but it ended up going much further than that. Her efforts were opposed by powerful hunting and ranching lobby groups, who had strongly opposed establishment of the Nevada Wild Horse Range in 1962, and had only accepted it because it was within the Nellis Air Force Range, and thus off-limits to them anyway.

In 1965, Johnston founded the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB), a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about the plight of feral horses and burros. ISPMB lobbied Congress and the President for wild horse protection on public land. Johnston and her group had several local allies in the Pryor Mountains area, as well. They included Bessie Tillett (a widowed rancher's wife in her 80s) and her sons, Royce and Lloyd Tillett. The Tilletts tried to protect the feral horses beginning in 1964, claiming them as their own. BLM officials suspended the Tilletts' lease in 1966 (the reason was inadequate fencing), forcing the family to give up their claim to many horses. Others who wanted to protect the herd included ranchers and the people of nearby Lovell , Wyoming, who saw the horses not only as part of western heritage but also a major tourist attraction.

The ISPMB and its allies proved highly effective in raising public awareness of the issue and building political support for their efforts, and in 1966 BLM suspended its plans for the roundup. In 1968, BLM proposed three new plans for dealing with the Pryor Mountains Mustang herd:

  • 1. Removing but not killing all but 30 to 35 animals and allowing the rest to remain on the range;

  • 2. Killing all but 10 to 15 animals and allow the herd to recover to 30 animals; or

  • 3. Allowing the state of Montana to remove all the animals and sell them.

In response, Pryor Mountains horse advocates began pushing for a protected sanctuary for these animals. The group contacted ABC News producer Hope Ryden and made her aware of BLM's plans. Ryden visited the range and filmed a news segment which aired on July 11, 1968, on ABC News. ABC News and BLM were "deluged" with mail protesting the removal of the horses after the segment aired. On August 27, 1968, the Humane Society of the United States successfully sued to stop trapping of the horses.

The political landscape shifted dramatically toward protection rather than removal of the horses. On September 9, 1968, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall formally established a Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range of 33,600 acres. Montana's senior Senator Mike Mansfield, was so elated that he published Udall's order scrapping the BLM plan in the Congressional Record.

In 1974, a few years after the passing of The Act but before the Wild Horse Program was developed, the Little Bookcliffs area of Colorado was also designated as a wild horse preserve.

The creation of the Marietta Wild Burro Range in 1991 completed the "Wild Horse (or in this case, Burro) Ranges."


Nice as it was to have 4 Preserves, people were still concerned about the plight of all the other wild horses throughout the West. Velma Johnson's letter-writing campaign, begun in 1966, generated more mail to Congress and the President than even the Viet Nam War.

Finally, in 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Protection Act. This Act designated wild horses and burros as federally protected species. It was a well-meaning law with a strong mandate from the public. But there was no budget attached, nor any plan or description of just exactly what that protection would look like. The animals themselves had been subject to very little scientific study. There was not even any agreement as to what constituted a "wild, free-roaming horse." The first several years were turbulent and slow-moving, as the country and the government tried to figure out how to carry out the law.

The Law still prohibited gathers using motorized equipment (amended later to allow them), and it allowed for the private maintenance of excess wild horses or burros, but with the adopter never receiving title (also changed with a later amendment). 

The population at this time was estimated to be 17,000 wild horses and 10,000 burros, in 10 western states on both BLM and Forest Service land. A more serious count in 1974 (and after 3 years of protection) revealed that the population was closer to 60,000. (Note: Neither count included National Parks or US Fish & Wildlife Service land, although wild horse and burros habitat in these areas was listed as potential Herd Areas)

"In 1971, Congress introduced and passed The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA). President Richard M. Nixon signed the new Act into law (Public Law 92-195) on December 15, 1971. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act required the protection, management and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros.

Local livestock operators now had to claim and permit their private horses and burros grazing on public lands or lose ownership of them. After a specified time period following passage of the Act, any remaining unbranded and unclaimed herds inhabiting BLM or Forest Service lands were declared "wild free-roaming horses and burros" and became the property of the federal government."(from "MUSTANG COUNTRY)

It was commonly known that many "free-roaming" horses were actually privately owned, so Congress gave owners notice that it was time to claim them, by branding them with their own brand and starting to pay grazing fees for them. Very few owners of these horses took the government up on its offer, so in about 1973 or 1974 (depending on location), nearly all officially became "wild, free-roaming horses" - Mustangs - with full protection under the law.



Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management to "Protect and Manage" the herds, but no one had any idea what that would actually look like, and others saw a conflict of interest built into giving wild horse protection to an agency that historically was there to regulate the cattle industry, an agency that came into being with the Taylor Grazing Act - the law that first made wild horses into a problem instead of something appreciated.

It was all new territory for BLM. Historically, they had managed LAND, animal habitat. Now they were mandated to manage not only the land but the animals themselves. There was no precedent, no road map, no set of instructions, other than to "protect and manage."

Note in this early document, that BLM instructs its employees that any controversy about what constitutes a wild horse is a moot point under the law. Whether feral or wild, descended from the Spanish or modern ranching operations, it does not matter. They are all "wild, free-roaming" horses and protected under the new law. Note also that most of the issues discussed are very much the same as we see today. The BLM WHB program truly exemplifies the old adage, "The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same."

Many employees within BLM resented the added responsibility. Some had no respect for wild horses or burros, and thought protecting them was ridiculous. Others loved the horses and burros, and even relished the opportunity to do something worthwhile and exciting.

One of the first acts was to identify where the wild horses and burros actually were. "Herd Areas" were identified and boundaries set in a hurry, without having time to study the behavior patterns, migratory routes (if any for that particular herd), water sources, food sources throughout the year, herd reproductive rates, etc. Very few, if any, scientific studies had been conducted into wild horse behavior or ecology. Once boundaries were legally set, the law prevented adjustments.

An early version of the process of identifying where wild horses and burros existed at the time the Act was passed. Many of these Herd Areas later had to be abandoned due to not having a water source, or being a "checkerboard" area (too much private land mixed in, making management impossible). We are still living with the legacy of this haste, as well as the basic strategy underlying it. If we had it to do over again, knowing what we know now about wild horse behavior and needs, would defining and setting territory boundaries actually be the best way to start?

As soon as habitat areas were mapped and boundaries set, legal protection of wild horses and burros became limited to just those in identified Herd Areas. Any others were at this time, and forever afterward, excluded. This is the subject of considerable public confusion today. The US Forest Service (USFS) also established Wild Horse Territories (WHT) that are also included for protection under The Act. Often these are managed in cooperation with BLM.

Horses not living in these designated Herd Areas or Wild Horse Territories have no legal protection. Well-known excluded areas include wild horses and burros living in National Parks, including Death Valley, Grand Canyon, various Southern Utah Parks, and Theodore Roosevelt; The three herds on Sheldon National Pronghorn Preserve, which is administered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service; as well as small remnant bands of horses living in many County lands throughout the West. Indian Reservations are technically "sovereign nations" and so horses there are also not included.

The Virginia Range (also sometimes called Comstock horses) includes wild horses living around Reno and Carson City, Nevada, and neighboring communities. These horses are subject to State of Nevada "Estray" laws, although they are known to have existed as wild herds long before the 1971 ACT, and were, in fact, a favorite of Wild Horse Annie. Although included in the very beginning days of the Act, the Virginia Range was ultimately abandoned as an HA due to having too much private land mixed in, and being too close to civilization to manage effectively. Catnip Mountain in the Sheldon Pronghorn Preserve was also originally identified as a potential HA, but the USFWS did not agree.

The immediate effect of federal protection was a rapid increase in population . All of a sudden "mustanging" stopped, so the wild herds began to grow. The first BLM gather of excess wild horses conducted the same year in the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in Montana.


1972 saw the first Adoption of wild horses to the public. The idea of "adopting" wild horses came from the need to dispose of the excess Pryor horses and was originally suggested by Velma Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) in meetings prior to the passage of PL 92-195. The statement in the law concerning disposition of excess horses was spawned by these earlier meetings. The statement says excess horses or burros, "may be removed for private maintenance under humane conditions and care." At that time, adoption was more like permanent foster care. The horse was cared for by the adopter, but ownership (and thus, federal protection) stayed with the BLM. The official Adopt-A-Horse or Burro Program to encourage horse enthusiasts to adopt animals gathered from public rangelands, was rolled out in 1976.

National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board is Formed

In 1974 The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board was created. The DOI and USDA appointed a nine-member advisory board, including Wild Horse Annie, to make recommendations on matters pertaining to wild horses and burros.

In its First Report to Congress, the committee reported that in just three years, the population had grown to 27,000 horses and 14,000 burros. Permission was requested to gather horses and burros using motorized vehicles. They also asked for authority for the public to obtain ownership of adopted wild horses. Congressional Approval was granted for BLM and the FS to remove approximately 3,929 excess horses and 63 excess burros. Due to difficulties encountered in capturing these animals on horseback,  only 1,681 horses and 33 burros were captured Approximately 900 horses and a few burros were made available to persons under maintenance agreements. The remainder were returned to the range, claimed by owners, or were destroyed.


During the last half of the 1970's, lawsuits were used to establish that the Wild Horse Act of 1971 was in fact legal, but also that horses and burros had to managed within a Multiple Use format, and that BLM and USFS had to create Management Plans for each Herd Area in their jurisdiction, and that these plans would include removals (gathers) of excess horses.

In 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (PL 94-579) amended the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to  managing agencies to use helicopters to manage and/or remove excess animals.  It also required that BLM balance horse use with other resource uses (Multiple Use) CCC (Coordination, Cooperation, and Consultation).

In 1976, The Supreme Court heard a case "Kleppe v New Mexico " and ruled unanimously that the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was indeed Constitutional.

BLM adopted the Alpha Angle freeze marking system developed by Dr. Keith Farrell at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. In 1978, BLM started to freeze mark animals with permanent individual identification marks (Alpha Angle) making it easier to distinguish a wild horse and burro from a domestic animal.

  ( - T. Pogachnik, "Wild Horse & Burro Timeline, 2001)

In 1978, The Public Rangelands Improvement Act (Public Law 95-514) established or reaffirmed:

  • the need for inventory and identification of current public rangeland conditions (through monitoring);

  • the management, maintenance, and improvement of public rangeland conditions to support all rangeland values;

  • the continuance of provisions protecting wild free-roaming horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment, or death while facilitating the removal of excess wild horses and burros that pose a threat to their own habitat and other rangeland resources;

  •  and the transfer of the title of ownership after one year to individuals that adopted wild horses and burros removed from public rangelands, so long as the animals had received humane care and treatment during that year.
    (from BLM website)

This Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA) amended the WFRHBA to stress multiple use concept of public lands, and to authorize the removal of horses when necessary to maintain "a thriving ecological balance" and protect the range from deterioration associated with overpopulation of wild horses and burros.

It removed the provision that required herd areas be managed “principally” for the benefit of the wild horses. It created a requirement for research study, and to establish an order and priority for removal of excess animals. It also called for an inventory of rangeland conditions and inventory of wild horse and burro herds.

Also in 1978, Several Holding & Adoption Centers were created:

The first contract adoption center ever set up by the BLM was in Spanaway, WA.

Contract facilities were developed in Eugene, Oregon, Cross Plains, Tennessee and Valley Mills, Texas.

Palomino Valley Wild Horse & Burro Facility was purchased and initial improvements were made. The Eugene Wild Horse & Adoption Center operated between September of 1978 through September of 1986.

"In that time it adopted out over 3000 horses and 150 burros to adopters from all over the U.S. The policy that was developed there was that every horse leaving the facility was halter broke to the point that it could be tied and led. All horses left the facility with a nylon web halter and 20' of poly lead rope attached to the halter," says Sandee Force, daughter of the Eugene facility operator, Chuck Johns.

"Most stallions were gelded at the center with only a few stallions going out to knowledgeable horsemen. The Eugene Center also took back and reassigned horses that people could no longer keep and those whose adopters were in over their heads," she continued.

"Clinics were held both at the center and at all Satellite adoptions on halter starting, leading, how to tie a foot up for working safely with your horse as well as at least one 2-3 year old went through ground driving and the first 3 rides at all major satellite adoptions."

"Chuck John also started a number of horses that were not moving well and adopted them out. He delivered horses all over the Northwest and often had people call us when they needed help and one of us would talk them through their problems and keep up with them to make sure things were headed in the right direction. We often shipped multiple horses to the same people over the years."

- Sandee Force, daughter of Chuck John, operator of the Eugene Wild


Horse Adoption Center

In 1979, the first permanent holding facility in the East was established in Cross Plains, Tennessee. Randall & Paula Carr operated it until the contract was moved to Elgin, Illinois in the early 2000's. Carr's facilities processed over 20,000 animals – not only adopting but also holding, sorting, vetting, hoof trimming, and providing medical attention.

Between 1976 and 1978, BLM developed 36 HMA plans and the Forest Service had developed 29 WHTs (Wild Horse Territories). By 2000, that number rose to over 300. By 2014, it had reduced to 179, in part because some HMAs were combined into new mega-HMA Complexes.

Court rulings influenced the development of the Program. Lawsuits contesting the Wild Horse & Burro Act were common during the early years of the program, from such various groups as the National Wildlife Federation and ranching groups, who opposed the program. Advocate groups like the American Horse Preservation Association sued for better treatment of the animals during gathers and in holding facilities, and for management policies they believed would be beneficial.


As important as the 1971 Wild Horse & Burro Freedom Act is to wild horse & burro issues, it is also important to know about the Sagebrush Rebellion, as these two forces acted - and to some extent still act - as weights on opposite ends of a teeter-totter of policy-making. To understand wild horse politics, it is important to know about the Sagebrush Rebellion and the powerful effect it had in the region, and continues to have.

The "Sagebrush Rebellion" was most active in Nevada during the 1960's through late 1970's. The Sagebrush Rebels targeted wild horses as an expression of local people's contempt for increasing federal intervention in their lives and ways of doing business. Animosity toward wild horses from the ranching community continues to this day.


Here are some links:

"Sagebrush rebels is a group that attempted to influence environmental policy in the American West during the 1970s and 1980s, surviving into the 21st century in public lands states (generally, the 13 western states where federal land holdings include 30% to more than 50% of a state's area), and surviving in organized groups pressuring public lands policy makers, especially for grazing of sheep and cattle on public lands, and for mineral extraction policies.

(Reprinted from "Western Sportsman" – the official voice of the Nevada Wildlife Federation, –February 1997 issue.)


  • "Nevada State Senator Dean Rhoads’ Legislative Committee on Public Lands (and also regarded as the father of the Sagebrush Rebellion and is a public lands permittee and rancher) is wasting no time after November’s elections to eliminate or cripple the state’s role in protecting the wild horses on public lands in Nevada." (click link for complete article)

  •  Sagebrush Rebellion: A terrible idea that won't go away

  • 41 Years of Wild Horse Hell," - Range Magazine, Summer 2014.


BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program Continues to develop:

In 1980, the Little Bookcliffs Wild Horse Range was designated in Colorado. As a "Wild Horse Range" it was set up to be managed principally (though not necessarily exclusively) for wild horses, as opposed to ordinary Herd Management Areas, which are managed strictly within a Multiple Use format.


In 1982 new regulations set adoption fees at $200 for a horse and $75 for burros. It also provided for power of attorney whereby an adopter could elect to have someone else select and adopt in his/her absence. Prior to this time the adoption fee was between $0 and $145.


The Hughes Case established that private individuals can not exercise humane destruction unless authorized. If they do, they can be held criminally responsible.


The National Academy of Sciences established methodology for monitoring standards. They called for additional research and information as well as to pull together existing information.


The  BLM Director and Forest Service Chief placed a moratorium on the destruction of unadopted excess animals through the Burford Policy. Prior to this, "excess" animals gathered but not adopted, were "humanely destroyed." This did not sit well with the public.


A congressional committee and the Office of Management and Budget recommended recovery of some of the costs of adoption. In addition to the base adoption fee, additional fees were added if the animal was transported· from the facility where it was prepared for adoption to another adoption center. These additional costs resulted in an immediate chilling effect on new adoption rates. So in 1983, it was abandoned. The adoption fee for a wild horse was reduced from $200 to $125 in response to public concern and reduced adoption demand. Sale Authority was requested.


Bills were introduced (but not passed) to amend the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to allow sale at auction of un-adopted animals. These bills were hotly contested and were not passed.

Holding facilities were set up for 10,000 horses.


Another legal challenge resulted in the ruling that a person can be criminally prosecuted for conversion (theft) instead of WH&B violations, or in addition to WH&B violations in appropriate cases. This would apply to cases where a horse is adopted and then sold or otherwise disposed of before being titled.

Desiring to rapidly increase the number of adoptions, an emergency rule was published that gave the Director the authority to adjust or waive the adoption fee for animals unadopted at the standard fee. To maximize the effect of the rule and to avoid interfering with the regular adoption program, BLM required that a minimum of 100 animals be involved in each fee waiver or reduction transaction.


Approximately 700 otherwise unadoptable animals were placed as a result of this rule between May 1984 and September 30, 1984. However, the public was very suspicious of this program, and it was widely protested.

BLM also eliminated transportation costs to adoption sites, making adoption fees uniform throughout the Country.


In 1985 Congress tripled program funding and directed BLM to triple removals. BLM accomplished a record number of removals: 19,000. This, of course, created overcrowding of holding pens. Three holding facilities were in operation that could hold a capacity of up to 3,000 each (Bloomfield, Nebraska, Lovelock, Nevada, and Muleshoe, Texas) if needed. By the end of Fiscal Year {FY) 1985 more than 7,600 animals were being maintained in the contract facilities, and another 2,300 animals were being cared for in BLM's own corrals.


A contract was awarded to the University of Minnesota for a fertility control research project. It was a public relations disaster, due to documented incidences of inhumane handling and stress-related deaths of horses used in this research.

In 1986, the Second Advisory Board was held. Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior established a Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board which proposed a 5-step process for excess animals. Step 5 was humane destruction of un adopted animals. Other steps included getting sale authority from Congress, recommending Prison Training, and recommending Sanctuaries to reduce the high cost of holding animals in feedlots. Sanctuaries were supposed to become self sufficient.

Also in 1986, the first inmate-wild horse training program began, in Colorado at the Canon City, Colorado, correctional facility. (prison training was one of the steps recommended by the Advisory Board.)

A lawsuit, Dahl vs Clark, was heard in the District Court 9th Circuit Court. The result mandated rules that BLM should manage herds to establish a "Thriving Ecological Balance", with no particular number required.

In 1987, a Draft policy incorporating Advisory Board's recommendations was made available for comment. Public response opposed the proposal to lift the moratorium on destruction of unadopted animals.


Two new maintenance contracts were awarded for FY 1988 to existing facilities at Bloomfield and Lovelock. California, New Mexico, and Wyoming all instituted prison training programs.


In API vs Hodel, U.S. District Court for Nevada prohibited BLM from adopting animals or transferring titles to adopters who had "expressed to the Secretary an intent, upon the granting of title, to use said animals for commercial purposes". The decision stated, however, that the BLM is not required to inquire about adopter intentions prior to approving adoptions or conveying titles or to reclaim animals whose titles had already passed to adopters.

A news story covered of an event where BLM was sending wild horses scheduled for destruction to a zoo for use as lion food. This resulted in a lot of negative publicity.

That year, BLM achieved a record number of adoptions - through a combination regular and fee-waiver adoptions. Congress prohibited use of FY 1988 funds to destroy healthy unadopted wild horses and burros. The same prohibition language in the Interior Appropriation Bills every year since.

BLM was issued guidance including most of the Advisory Board's recommendations, but not the destruction of unadopted animals.

The First sanctuary for 2000 unadopted excess wild horses was established in Western South Dakota, but soon closed because it failed to fulfill one of its terms, which was to operate profitably.

With the establishment of federal sanctuaries, BLM terminated their unpopular fee waiver program in September of 1988.

In 1988, over 100 wild horses died on Nellis Wild Horse Range, after drinking water polluted with aircraft de-iceing chemicals. The incident was ruled an unfortunate and unintentional accident, but created a public furor.

A contract was awarded for one new holding facility (Bloomfield) for FY 1989.

In 1989, BLM had four states with prison sites that were operational, and 1,700 wild horses received training prior to being offered for adoption. A second sanctuary (Long Term Holding, or LTH) was chosen in September near Bartlesville; Oklahoma.

Removals were reduced or stopped in most locations from appeals by humane groups to Interior Board of Land Appeals. Removal decisions must be based on monitoring data. This led to a major population increase in the horse population.

GAO issued a report finding the BLM to be inconsistent on our forage allocation between horses and livestock.

The Third Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board was charted in May for a 2-year term. They recommended fertility control, increasing burro fee to $125, creating the First Strategic Plan, and responded to a negative GAO report on the cost and effectiveness of Prison Training.

The BLM Director established a Wild Horse and Burro Steering Committee to focus on critical issues in the administration of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. This committee is made up of 5 western Associate State Directors.

In BLM issued the selective removal policy where all excess animals older than 9 years of age were returned to the range to reduce the number of unadoptable  horses.

Ultimately, manipulating population demographics proved to have unexpected negative results, so in more recent times, BLM tries to maintain a more "natural" ratio of ages and gender.

In 1992, hundreds of dead or dying horses were discovered on Nellis Wild Horse Range, due to extreme drought.



The initial Act was created in response to fears of wild horse and burro extinction. The fact that wild horses have a high reproductive rate and that populations would need to be controlled caught people by surprise. But it happened - and quickly. As soon as the 1971 Act went into effect, wild herds began flourishing, and then overpopulating.

So horses were gathered. Gathered horses were offered for adoption. But there are problems with gathers, and when more horses are gathered than can be adopted, there are more problems.


Originally, gathers targeted horses 9 years of age and younger, but in order to improve adoption successes, this was changed early on to focus on animals 3 years of age and younger. In practice, 5 years of age and under were removed during the first gathers under this policy. BLM initiated a pilot fertility control effort, but it stopped at the pilot stage, never gaining a foothold on widespread practice..

A lawsuit, Blake vs Babbitt, established that "full force and effect" decisions are lawful, and that decisions on removals must be based on the best information available at the time.

The South Dakota Sanctuary was closed for unprofitability, and the remaining horses were shipped to the Oklahoma Sanctuary. The Black Hills Sanctuary in South Dakota became an independent, self-sufficient sanctuary that still operates, using a tourism model for income, and caring for approximately 200 wild horses.

In the 1990's, The Office of Inspector General's report recommending closure of sanctuaries due to high costs. As a result of this report, a strategy was developed to adopt out the remaining sanctuary horses. Also, as a result of this report, funding to the prison training programs was curtailed . A Wild Horse and Burro web site was developed and activated.

Efforts to adopt mares proved to be successful, with adopters frequently breeding the mare to a domestic stallion and keeping the offspring. However, geldings, at this time, were not readily adopted by the public. Adopting these animals far exceeded the expense of maintaining them on the sanctuary.

1996 saw the first Emergency Gathers, which started in July and continued to the end of September. These gathers were conducted in the Southern part of Nevada and on the Nellis Air Force Base . The emergency condition was caused by a lack of rain and forage. By the end of September 1996, BLM had removed 3,100 animals under emergency conditions. Many of the animals were in near-starvation condition, many lactating mares died. WHOA activated volunteers to care for the resulting orphans. In August, the Wild Horse and Burro Program Emergency Team was established to investigate the emergency situation in Nevada.

Starting in January of 1997, horses on the Nellis Air Force range were gathered again to reduce the number of animals on the range. A total of 778 animals were gathered, including 16 burros, with 201 animals released back into the herd management area. Much of the remaining Nellis herd consisted of older animals.

Also in January of 1997, Martha Mendoza, a reporter for the Associated Press, released a damning report of abuses within the BLM system, in which many wild horses ended up at the slaughterhouse. Read the LA Times story by clicking here. The charges were serious, and an investigation followed. BLM was ultimately cleared of charges but the public's doubts remained.


Within BLM, The Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program Policy Analysis Team, led by Pete Culp, Director of the Eastern States, was established in January to conduct a review of BLM adoption policies. The panel recommended that all wild horse and burro specialists must receive training, in order to avoid incidents of the type revealed by the Mendoza report.

The Wild Horse and Burro Program Emergency Review Team's final report was issued in February. This report addressed herd management in Nevada as well as overall management in the Wild Horse and Burro Program. In February, Law Enforcement personnel concluded their investigation on wild horses going to slaughter facilities. They found that one quarter of one percent of the animals slaughtered in a year's time were titled wild horses. Wild horses are but a small fraction of the overall horse population in North America, too, so that result wasn't particularly satisfying to the wild horse activists, and the Mendoza report is still talked about by people and groups today.

On March 7, 1997, the regulation to change the adoption fee became final. The adoption fee for each wild horse or burro is a minimum of $125 each. Mares with foals are a total of $250 for the pair. In addition, some adoptions may be conducted using a competitive-bidding process.

A settlement with the Animal Protection Institute and Fund for Animals was agreed to by BLM, which added a clause to the PMACA (Private Maintenance and Care Agreement which each adopter signs) which would ask the adopter of their intentions, at the time of adoption, concerning selling the animals for slaughter. The intent clause and a requirement for a Social Security Number was added to the PMACA in 1998.

1997 was also the year of the first helicopter gather of wild horses on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. One foal was fatally injured, which resulted in widespread bad press for the BLM program.

In 1998 the adoption demand dropped and the focus was shifted somewhat from removals to marketing wild horses and burros. Reduced adoptions started resulting in a backlog of animals in the system.

The East Mojave Preserve was added to the Mojave National Preserve which was established in 1994 by the California Desert Protection Act. The loss of the East Mojave area by BLM resulted in the loss of 4 HMAs and parts of four others. All the burros were removed from these areas by the National Park Service, because they were deemed non-native species, regardless of historical value.

Training contracts were issued in several states for the gentling of older horses. These efforts were largely unsuccessful and abandoned. One such plan, shown on Public Television, involved placing a horse in a box and then pouring grain into the box, up to the horse's neck, thus immobilizing it. The horse would then be petted and gently spoken to, until it somehow "learned" that the human was its friend. When some horses died of stress-induced heart attacks, this method was abandoned. Other attempts involved much less draconian techniques, but none had great success.


By the late 1990's, much of the world had access to email and the World Wide Web, allowing much more citizen awareness and participation in wild horse issues. BLM was a bit slow in making use of this opportunity, but many vocal critics of the program were quick to seize the ability to reach millions of people with a simple email and a webpage. At the same time, Internet chat groups sprung up everywhere, connecting people with information about wild horse adoption, gentling and training advice (whether good or bad) and other support and resources for adopters. In the beginning, most of this was volunteer, occurring spontaneously as an outgrowth of actual adopters' enthusiasm for wild horses and burros.

The first Internet Adoption was conducted in 1998. These have continued to be very popular, allowing people across the country to adopt horses in far-away holding facilities that they might normally not be able to visit.

In 1999, The "Strategy for the Management of Wild Horses and Burros on Public Land" was formulated and analyzed. A Population Viability Forum was held in Fort Collins, Colorado A "Statement of Work" between BLM and APHIS approved USDA, Slaughterhouse MOU was finalized.

The first "Satellite down link" adoptions were conducted.

In 2000, The "Strategy for the Management of Wild Horses and Burros on Public Land" was approved. This strategy called for a 5-year plan, in which massive gathers would reduce wild populations to their set Appropriate Management Level (AML) - a number set through a combination of field science and negotiating with all the various "stakeholders." The plan, approved and funded by Congress, called for a massive increase in gathers, with excess horses that could not be absorbed by the adoption program going to federally-funded "Sanctuaries" also known as LTH (Long-Term Holding).

The plan was to get the entire system of managed herds down to AML by 2005. After that time, only maintenance gathers would be needed, and most of these horses could be adopted through the adoption program. Increased demand for horses through better marketing, combined with natural attrition through horses getting old and dying, would gradually reduce the LTH population.

It was a good plan and still would be - EXCEPT that AML has never been reached. Had AML ever been reached, the population could have been kept stable through planned gathers every 4-5 years, and the adoption program would have been able to handle most of the number gathered each year. 

But alas, that never happened, for a range of reasons, including economics, extremely challenging terrain in some areas, and "Advocate" lawsuits that seldom prevented a gather, but often caused long-term delays and a large outlay of legal expenses. And so numbers of both gathered animals in holding facilities, and numbers on the range continue to grow. In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences published an extensive study in which they revealed, with hard data in support, that wild herds reproduce 17 - 20% per year.

The national economic recession of 2007 - 2009 caused adoption fervor to plummet, and so far (2014) adoption demand has never recovered. The large numbers of animals in LTH and the costs associated with caring for them has become a huge political hot button.


Periodically, the news has presented expose's of BLM horses going to slaughter. Titled horses are legally considered the personal property of the owner, and can be sold to slaughter. However, legally, any animal showing up at a slaughter house with a BLM brand must be accompanied by a valid certificate of title. If not, the animal is not eligible for slaughter and BLM is supposed to be notified to repossess the animal.

In 2001, an Adoption Standardization team finalized contracts for the first two long term holding facilities. Several more have been added since. 

A Marketing Strategy was funded by Congress and implemented by BLM. Contracts were finalized for Long Term Holding Facilities. The Marketing Plan prepared by Fleishman-Hillard, Inc., was accepted by BLM in January and implemented in May of 2001. 

In 2001, the BLM also entered into a partnership with what was originally called the Wild Horse & Burro Foundation, but soon was changed to the Mustang Heritage Foundation, to avoid confusion with a private group in Texas by the same name.

Their "Extreme Mustang Makeovers" and variations such as the Mustang Million, Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover, Youth and Yearlings and TIP (Trainer Incentive Program) Programs continue to be very active. .

From the economic downturn of 2007 - 09 through the early 2020's, the majority of BLM adoptions (78% in Oregon for instance) were from Mustang Heritage Foundation events.

In 2013, they released the movie, Unbranded, to promote mustang awareness and adoption. The MHF continues to be the largest and most active - not to mention exciting - program in the nation promoting the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program.

Currently (2023), BLM has largely abandoned satellite adoptions, instead holding an expanded Internet Adoption.



    The program has always had volunteers, but in the 1990's, it really began to take off, in response partly to the rise in adoptions.

  • WHOA, (Wild Horse Organized Assistance) founded in part by Wild Horse Annie, and led for many years by Dawn Lappin, was active long before there even was a BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program. WHOA continued to be active throughout the program's history, advocating to Congress for safer, more realistic, humane and effective management, as well as performing "boots to the ground" work raising orphan foals, helping to found the Northern Nevada Correctional Facility's Wild Horse training and adoption program, and operating mustang promotion activities such as the National Wild Horse and Burro Show (which morphed into the Western States Wild Horse & Burro Expo, and is currently inactive. (2019) 

    WHOA's foremost couple, Dawn and Bert Lappin, continued to provide orphan care until their declining health prevented it. Dawn passed away in 2018.


  • A group called Wild Horse Mentors/LRTC worked actively with BLM nationwide and especially in the West to help new adopters and encourage new adoptions. Beginning in 1998, they held annual Wild Horse Workshops at various locations across the country, to teach humane gentling methods. The last Wild Horse Workshop was held in 2006. LRTC continues working to help adopters and wild horses, especially the Virginia Range horses who have no legal protection, and are now (2019) very active in Technical Large Animal Rescue for Northern Nevada.

  • The Pacific Wild Horse Club, The Intermountain Wild Horse & Burro AdvisorsAmerican Wild Horse & Burro Association, and others across the country continue to provide gentling workshops and other activities. Recently several new wild horse and burro clubs - local, regional, and national - are springing up.

  • The California BLM Volunteer Program evolved in the early 2000's and at its peak, it involved an organized system of trained volunteers organized into regional hubs, to help BLM maintain the country's only 99% compliance check record for adoptions. These volunteers performed important work during the heyday of adoptions, ending suddenly with the economic crash and burst of the real estate bubble in about 2008 - 2009. 

    With the sudden drop in adoptions after the economic downturn, the Volunteer program has been less active, although volunteers still hold "Meet and Greets" and other activities designed to increase public awareness.


  • The Western States Wild Horse & Burro Expo began in the 1990's as "The National Wild Horse Show", based in Reno, Nevada. It changed its name in 2001 in response to a dream of developing a series of cooperating shows across the country, with points earned for wins, and the Reno event was to be the Grand National Finals for mustangs and burros. This system never developed, but for many years the Western States Wild Horse and Burro Expo remained the biggest and perhaps most prestigious wild horse and burro show in the country, attended by mustangs and burros and their adopters from all over the western states, and sometimes further east

  • This section just presents "the tip of the iceberg" of volunteer activities across the country - volunteers remain the often unrecognized but driving force behind the very existence and continued success of the wild horse and burro program.

  • The Expanding role of Social Media to influence the Wild Horse Program, and to generate volunteerism of all sorts, cannot be understated.

    The Internet pioneered search engines and discussion groups during the 1990's, and by 2000, Yahoo! and AOL had active discussion groups for adopters and "advocates."

    By 2006, The Internet and Social media (such as Facebook) had garnered enough users as to constitute a powerful political force. If a horse was injured during a gather, chances were that someone was there to photograph it, and within minutes, the image, along with highly-charged rhetoric, spread around the world. Lawsuits quickly generated donations from upset citizens, eager to "save the mustangs from extinction."

    Although BLM had a basic website as early as the mid-1990's, BLM was, unfortunately, slow to adapt to the modern Internet Age, and a relative late-comer to effectively telling their story, but recently they have made a great effort to improve and update their website, and today it is an excellent resource.


horses on range-crow reservation - maria
open range cattle drive.jpg

Here's an article from TIME magazine in 1939:

Wild Horse Round-Up

Monday, Feb. 20, 1939

Tens of thousands of "mustangs" and "fuzztails" — the wild descendants of horses that, have strayed from ranches — used to roam the vast sagebrush ranges of the U. S. Northwest. In wilder days, wild horse roundups were carried on periodically for the Portland, Ore. firm of Schlesser Bros., then the world's biggest packers of horsemeat.

In five years (1925-30) the Schlessers slaughtered some 300,000 head of outlaws, salted their meat in 51 -gallon barrels, shipped most of it to Holland and Scandinavia. Hooves, ears, tails were sold for glue and oil; ground bones and scraps for chickenfeed ; hides for baseballs and shoes ; blood for fertilizer; casings for German sausage. Then the day of the wild horse began to wane, and the Schlessers turned to packing beef.

As winter last week finally settled over the "horse heaven" country of central Washington, the weather-wise Yakima Indians had already finished their first wild horse round-up of the year, thus reducing by 200 the estimated 2,500 outlaws still remaining in Oregon and Washington.

Whooping like their warrior ancestors, the Indians rode their own cayuses in hot pursuit of the outlaws, chased them out of deep canyons into trap corrals, where long fences led them into bottlenecks.


horse meat dog food.jpg

What's the difference between a "Wild Horse (or burro) Range"
and a "Herd Management Area" today?

The concept and identification of Herd Management Areas developed rather slowly. They are managed today as areas where wild horses and burros can legally live and be protected and managed, within a multiple use concept.

Designation as a Wild Horse or Burro Range means the area should be managed "principally" (but not necessarily exclusively) for wild horses or burros.

Today, the Ranges established before and shortly after the 1971 Act, are essentially just HMAs like any other.

HA, HMA, What's the Difference?

Today, the wild horse and burro habitat areas identified at that time are divided into two types: Herd Areas (HAs), which are recognized as historical habitat, but are not currently managed for wild horses or burros, and Herd Management Areas (HMAs), which are managed. Horses or burros may still be found occasionally on HAs, and when this happens, they are subject to federal protection, and are usually removed to a holding facility. Only on HMAs are populations managed for preservation on the range.

Red and yellow areas are federally protected wild horse or burro herd areas.
Animals living anywhere else are not included in the 1971 WHB Protection Act.

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