In 1950, Velma Johnston lived on a ranch outside Reno. She was driving into Reno where she worked as secretary as she came up behind a cattle truck full of gathered wild horses. She could see blood running from the trailer, and since she had been around horses all her life, such treatment enraged her. She followed the truck to a slaughterhouse where she took photos of the horses as they were unloaded.
She started a letter-writing campaign designed to protect wild horses, often working with children in schools. Her grassroots effort included writing articles for newspapers and magazines and urging people to petition their congressional representatives. Her critics named her Wild Horse Annie as an insult, but she proudly used this name as she worked to protect the animals.
Her efforts paid off in 1959 when Congress passed a law called the Wild Horse Annie Bill or the Save the Mustangs Bill. It outlawed the use of mechanized vehicles in wild horse gathers. The BLM could see they were going to be charged with management of these horses and tried to place a rider on this bill allowing them to use aircraft during gathers. The outrage against Mustangers and their methods was too great and the rider was not included. The bill also did not contain language Wild Horse Annie wanted to set up a program to protect, manage and control wild horses and burros.
Across the country, sentiment for wild horse was rapidly building. In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act passed congress by a unanimous vote and President Richard Nixon signed it.
The act charges federal agencies, primarily the BLM, with the task of protecting all wild horses on the public lands they administer. The act states that wild horses will be managed in a way to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on public land.
The act calls wild horses “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West ... [they] shall be protected from harassment or death.” It states that the wild horse is “an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”
In 1971, the BLM created the Wild Horse and Burro Program (NHBP). They estimated 9,500 wild horses lived on Western rangelands. The first task was to separate domestic from wild stock. In 1975, a claims program required ranchers to pay a fee and remove any domestic horses from wild herds, and it then became illegal to run private stock in wild horse herds. One Elko County rancher told me his father and other area ranchers specifically gathered and claimed every wild horse in the area, to make sure none were around when Herd Areas were set up.
The Wild Horse Organized Assistance (Whoa!) organized the first adoptions. Velma Johnson and today’s chairwoman, Dawn Lappin, founded this group. The numbers of adoptions quickly overwhelmed the group and in 1976, the BLM took over the adoption program. Also in 1976, the BLM received permission to use helicopters during gathers since helicopters, compared to horsemen, reduced the stress on gathered horses.
After the claims program ended, Herd Areas were delineated anywhere wild horse herds existed. The BLM checked each Herd Area to ensure each provided adequate food, water, cover and space for a healthy herd of horses over the long term. Those that passed became Herd Management Areas (HMA).
The Herd Areas that failed this test had their horses removed entirely. The WHBP is only responsible for maintaining wild horses inside HMAs and any horses outside of these areas are generally removed entirely.
The appropriate Management Level (AML) is the number of horses the WHBP experts believe an HMA can support over the long term. It is based on the land’s ability to maintain a healthy and diverse horse population while maintaining habitat quality for horses, wildlife and livestock. The next step was to assign AMLs for each HMA. AMLs consist of two numbers, a lower number of the least number of horses that HMA should always contain and a higher number which is the most horses it should contain. The BLM is supposed to gather excess horses to bring that herd’s population down to between those AML numbers. All HMAs in Elko County contain horse populations above their AML at the present time.
At the present time, the WHBP is not conducting gathers, citing no money to move horses and nowhere to place these gathered horses. Numbers of wild horses are astronomical in some HMAs and growing each spring. No one knows what the future holds for the WHBP.