Thirty Years Later...Wild Horses Again Slated for Slaughter

story and photos by Hope Ryden
Member, AWI Scientific Committee

The 92nd Congress had never experienced such a deluge of letters—it was as if the spirit of America's wild horses had suddenly infected the entire nation. Newspaper editorials, radio talk shows and television coverage were all focused on this topic in 1971. Our country was so fired up over the plight of wild horses that it was inevitable Congress would act; finally the animals I'd tracked for years through canyons and deserts would receive a hearing.

I had worked with Representative Walter Baring, Velma Johnson ("Wild Horse Annie") and Joan Blue of the American Horse Protection Association to fine-tune the proposed legislation. One of our concerns was the future management of wild horses. "There must never be any opportunity for profit to be made off these animals," Annie said. "That must be written into the legislation."

Both chambers took testimony in committee rooms packed with press and supporters for two days. Hearings were interrupted to seat a class of sixth graders from Long Island who raised money to attend by selling wild horse stickers.

At the hearings, Annie produced photographs of a mustang roundup to underscore the importance of our mission. The images, featuring terrified horses being chased by aircraft from the safety of their remote mountain and canyon habitats onto flat land, were hard to look at. The beautiful animals were hog-tied and loaded onto trucks, and foals were left behind to die; baby horses brought too small a price to warrant space in the rigs. Transport conditions were appalling, an awful prelude to inhumane deaths.

It is common knowledge that freelance "mustangers" who rounded up wild horses for sport and profit were given the nod of approval by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials eager to rid public lands of animals they perceived as "trespassers." Given the BLM's longstanding negative view of wild horses, we wondered how they would treat their charges once given custody. Would they continue to employ the same cruel practices in the name of the "range management" we wanted the law to eliminate?

Annie was resolute on the issue. "To prevent such atrocities from continuing, the bill must contain language prohibiting any commercial use of wild horses, dead or alive. Never, ever should they go to slaughter."

Joan and I backed her up, and the following language was written into the bill as a result: "In no event shall horse remains, or any part thereof be sold for any consideration, directly or indirectly (Section 4/d)."…"Any person who… processes or permits to be processed into products the remains of a wild free-roaming horse or burro ...will be subject to a fine up to $2,000 or/and imprisonment up to one year (Section 8/4)."

No politician would take a position against such a popular movement, and the law easily passed. With a stroke of the president's pen, the wild horse became a "living symbol of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West," entitled to "protection from capture, branding, harassment or death."

Sadly, the story did not end with this victory. Many BLM managers refused to accommodate wild horse herds in their districts. A state livestock board in New Mexico invoked its state estray law to claim ownership of 19 captured wild burros. In doing so, it challenged the supremacy of the federal law over a state law.

It became apparent that more issues than just wild horses were at stake as the case worked its way up the lower courts. Federal laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act were at risk of being invalidated. This was a case destined for the Supreme Court, and the end victory was decisive; the court voted 9 to 0 to uphold the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Yet this Supreme Court decision did not put an end to wild horse abuse.

My own investigations turned up sickening conditions at the holding corrals, such as a ditch filled with the bodies of horses who had succumbed to these appalling conditions. If these corrals were intended to demonstrate the adoption program's failure, they couldn't have been more convincing. Far too many animals had been gathered, when only the adoptable ought to have been held. These should have been showcased in comfortable holding pens that presented them at their best.

To be fair, BLM directors in some districts did just that. They also sponsored mentoring programs to help new adopters work with their animals, published a news letter that alerted the public to upcoming adoption sites and dates and used the Internet to facilitate adoptions. They demonstrated how an adoption program should be run, but unfortunately, their common sense approaches were not universally implemented.

It is also a problem that BLM personnel are trained range experts, not biologists. Their directive is to prevent degradation of the public domain—a vast area that in aggregate sprawls across twelve states and is larger than the entire country of France. To a range manager, grass is king; the better it looks, the better he or she is doing the job. Seen through this lens, a grass-eating herbivore appears to be the enemy.

These unsettled problems were troubling enough, but they were nothing compared to what was still to come. The Act was rendered meaningless last November when Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) attached a rider to the Appropriations bill, the contents of which must have escaped scrutiny by weary legislators anxious to take a vote and go home to bed. It was an amendment that dictated any wild horse or burro 10 years of age or older, as well as any horse not adopted after three tries, could be sold at auction without limitations.

This travesty must be reversed. Thankfully, Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY) have introduced H.R. 249, a bill to restore the 1971 Act and prohibit the sale of wild horses for slaughter. It is imperative that you encourage your Members of Congress to cosponsor this bill, for if they are not persuaded to reverse this perfidy, we might well say goodbye to America's wild horses!

To find out more about how you can help save America's last wild horses and all horses from slaughter please visit our legislative division.