Wild Horses: Exposing the Myths

(Courtesy of the Animal Protection Institute)

In 1971, Congress recognized that wild horses and burros “are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” by enacting the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. This law seeks to protect “from capture, branding, harassment, or death” wild horses and burros found on public lands in the United States. Yet the law has never been fully implemented by the Department of the Interior, the agency of the federal government charged with its administration. Below are common misconceptions — and the real facts — about wild horses.

MYTH: Wild horses and burros are exotic, non-native species rightfully categorized as “feral” domestic animals.

False. The Wild Horses and Burros Act recognizes the wild horse as an “integral component of the natural system.” Paleontological evidence shows that wild horses and burros evolved on the North American continent over the course of some 60,000,000 years. How they disappeared 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, if in fact they actually ever became extinct here, is a mystery. It is suspected that the horses were hunted to near extinction by humans who had crossed the ice bridge into North America. When Cortez landed in Mexico in 1519, he brought horses from Spain. Others followed. From these reintroduced animals came the great numbers of wild horses which eventually changed the culture of the Plains Indians.

The Spanish horses soon adapted to the same ecological niche their native relatives had once inhabited here. Every trait and characteristic that describes a native wildlife species fits the American wild horse and desert burro. Long before the early settlers and homesteaders pioneered the West, they were here as a reintroduced, fully adapted species. When the U.S. government acquired land through the Louisiana Purchase and from Mexico, also acquired were the wild horses. As many as 3 million wild horses existed on public domain lands. Their home territory stretched from the Carizzo Plains and Santa Lucia Mountains of California, east to Missouri, and north to North Dakota and into Canada.

MYTH: Wild horses and burros don’t really need legal protection. The law was passed in response to the lobbying of a few “horse lovers” and school children.

False. Prior to the passage of the wild horse law, free lance cowboys (“mustangers”) were selling wild horses, which are government property, without a license to dog food manufacturers. Using trucks and helicopters to round up the animals, the cowboys often left injured horses to die slowly in the desert. This outraged Velma Johnston, a resident of Reno, Nevada, whose actions on the horses’ behalf gave her the nickname “Wild Horse Annie.” As a result of the national publicity generated by Mrs. Johnston and others, a law was passed in 1959 to prohibit the use of aircraft or motor vehicles to hunt certain wild horses and burros on federally owned land. This law also made it illegal to “pollute any watering hole on any of the public land or ranges for the purpose of trapping, killing, wounding, or maiming any of such animals.”

However, the 1959 law did not prevent commercial interests from rounding up horses and burros and selling them for profit. Further protection for wild horses and burros was provided by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the result of overwhelming nationwide public support. Both chambers of Congress passed the Act unanimously — not one Senator or Representative voted against it. Congress chose to protect wild horses and burros as a heritage species.


MYTH: There is an overpopulation of wild horses on public lands.

False. There is no overpopulation of wild horses and burros. The condition of the land, not the number of animals, determines whether or not a wild horse overpopulation exists in a particular area. The wild horse law says that in a given area, a certain amount of vegetation may be eaten as forage. Only when that amount is exceeded are there too many animals.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has changed the definition of overpopulation as given in the wild horse law. The BLM has declared that overpopulation is any amount above its desired management number of 21,000 animals. The BLM’s 1997 report to Congress claimed an estimated 43,000 wild horses and burros on rangelands, a figure based on maximum reproductive rates to ensure funding from Congress to continue to remove horses and burros from public lands. The Animal Protection Institute and others contend that less than 20,000 animals actually remain on the land.

MYTH: The BLM removes wild horses and burros to keep the number of animals at a level the range can support.

False. Wild horse and burro populations are being severely reduced, but not to protect the range. Ranchers demand that wild horses be removed to protect forage historically allocated for livestock use.

The law requires that the BLM measure the impact of the animal population on the habitat to determine if there are too many animals in a given area. But, according to a 1990 investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO), BLM decisions on how many horses to remove from public lands have not been based on any evidence that wild horse populations exceed what the range can support. Moreover, the GAO found that wild horse removals often have not been accompanied by reductions in livestock grazing. In some cases, the BLM has increased authorized livestock grazing levels after removing wild horses. As a result, range conditions have not improved.

The law authorizes the BLM to remove wild horses and burros “when they pose a threat to themselves, their habitat, or other rangeland values.” However, only the number needed to restore the natural ecological balance between wild horses, other wildlife, and their habitat may be removed. Thus, the law prohibits the BLM from maintaining a predetermined number of animals. This interpretation of the law has been confirmed by a federal court decision and rulings of the Interior Board of Land Appeals, as well as the GAO findings.


MYTH: Wild horses compete with cows for forage.

False. Wild horses do not compete with cattle for the same available forage. Cows graze within a mile of water, while wild horses are highly mobile, grazing from five to ten miles from water, at higher elevations, on steeper slopes, and in more rugged terrain. A congressionally mandated study by the National Academy of Science found that wild horses and burros are not responsible for overgrazing on public lands. The study also revealed that, in one year, livestock consumed 70% of grazing resources on public lands, while wild horses and burros consumed less than 5%. Cattle outnumber wild horses on public lands by approximately 1,000 to 1.

MYTH: Where BLM manages wild horses and burros is a land-use decision to be determined at the local level.

False. The sole and exclusive authority for where wild horses are to be managed is stated in the wild horse law. It says that the BLM must manage and protect wild horses and burros where they existed in 1971, at the time the law passed. The only land-use decision authorized by the wild horse law is whether to designate an area where wild horses and burros are known to have existed in 1971 as exclusive habitat for the animals, or as multiple-use land. Lands designated as multiple-use are to be managed “principally but not exclusively” for wild horses and burros. The BLM may not expand the range for wild horses and burros or open up new areas for their use. Despite the requirements and directives of the law, BLM officials insist that where they manage wild horses and how many are to be managed are decisions to be made as a part of local land-use deliberations.

In 1984, there were 303 identified wild horse and burro use areas on 47 million acres of land. By 1997, only 186 of those areas contained wild horses or burros. Through land-use planning decisions, the BLM has emptied 117 herd use areas and reduced wild horse habitat area to less than 35 million acres. The BLM plans to empty 60 more wild horse areas despite the law prohibiting it.


MYTH: The BLM may at its discretion dispose of animals considered to be excess.

False. The law allows for three methods of lowering the number of animals in a particular area after the determination is made that an overpopulation exists and a reduction is needed. Excess horses may:

be relocated to other areas of public land,
be destroyed in a humane manner, or
be removed from the range and placed in the care of qualified individuals or organizations.
A BLM program allows “qualified individuals or organizations” to adopt, for a nominal fee, animals removed from the range. This adoption program has been used by the BLM to remove large numbers of horses and burros from public land, a practiced encouraged by the ranching industry, which views all wildlife as competing with livestock.

Between 1980 and 1990, the BLM rounded up, removed, and disposed of more than 80,000 wild horses, about 60,000 of whom were processed through the Adopt-A-Horse program. The BLM does not have the authority to sell wild horses. Providing the BLM with sale authority would allow the animals to be sold for commercial purposes, including slaughter. In the 1980s, several attempts were made to amend the law to include BLM sale authority, and each time the public protested.

When these bids to gain sale authority failed, the BLM instituted a special fee-waived, mass adoption program to serve as a disposal system for handling large numbers of horses removed from the range. A federal court ruling eventually ended the mass adoption program, leaving more than 3,000 horses in the system in need of homes. The BLM continues to allocate about half of its wild horse program budget to rounding up horses for adoption even though many animals are currently in the system awaiting adoption.

MYTH: A horse may be sold for slaughter if the adopter obtains an official title.

False. Although the BLM maintains that a horse may be sold for slaughter if the horse is first adopted and the adopter obtains an official title, this was not the intent of Congress when it passed the wild horse protection law. The law says that, after one year, an adopted wild horse or burro loses legal protections provided the animal is not sold or transferred for compensation or commercial purposes.

In the late 1980s, API and The Fund for Animals challenged the BLM’s fee-waived, mass adoption program on the grounds that the BLM knew in advance that the adopters intended to sell or commercially exploit the horses, and thus were not qualified adopters. The Court found in API’s favor and instructed the BLM not to transfer title when the adopter planned to use the animal for commercial purposes. This decision was upheld on appeal. Nonetheless, investigations reveal that BLM agents have, in fact, placed horses with people with the knowledge that the horses would be sold for slaughter.

In 1997, API and The Fund for Animals returned to court to request that the 1987 injunction be enforced and strengthened to protect wild horses from going to slaughter. As a result of the lawsuit, the BLM agreed to reform its requirements for adopting wild horses to prevent these rampant abuses. In the settlement, the BLM agreed to reword its Private Maintenance and Care Agreement so that anyone who adopts a wild horse or burro for slaughter or commercial purposes may be prosecuted. The agency also promised it would prohibit using the powers of attorney in the adoption process, and that U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors will notify BLM when horses with the BLM freeze-brand arrive at a slaughterhouse.

API is prepared to take whatever actions are necessary to see that the practice of selling wild horses for slaughter ends and that the original intent and language of the law is followed.


“[Wild free-roaming horses and burros] belong to no one individual. They belong to all the American people. The spirit which has kept them alive and free against almost insurmountable odds typifies the national spirit which led to the growth of our Nation. They are living symbols of the rugged independence and tireless energy of our pioneer heritage.”

(U.S. Senate Report No. 242, 92nd Congress, 1971)




18 responses to “FREE ROAMING HORSE AND BURRO ACT 1971

  1. I like the way you’ve set this up. The BLM claims against the actual facts. The BLM claims either make them look like a conspiracy or incompetent. Still I’d love to see the actual study. I know I linked to it once but now I can’t find it anywhere. It’s nice to have facts like that, they have a more powerful punch than “I love horses and think it’s wrong.”

    • Thank you Terri, and welcome :). The blm has not posted number of horses in holding since 2007. I want to know why. We need facts and hopefully we get them.

  2. Press Release
    Please send on to all media outlets- full press release in downloadable form available here

    Return America’s Wild Horses to Their Rightful Ranges
    A Response to Secretary Salazar’s Plan for America’s Wild Horses and Burros
    On October 7, 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a new initiative for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro program. The Secretary announced that this is a “national solution to restore the health of America’s wild horse herds and the rangelands that support them by creating a cost-efficient, sustainable management program that includes the possible creation of wild horse preserves on the productive grasslands of the Midwest and East.”[1]

    The Cloud Foundation is encouraged that the Interior Department realizes that there are problems with the management of wild horses on public lands by the Bureau of Land Management and is considering ways to improve the Wild Horse and Burro Program.
    However, the Cloud Foundation questions the need to develop seven new preserves in the mid-west and east (at an estimated initial cost of $96 million) when there are 19.4 million acres of designated wild horse and burro of rangelands that have been taken away from them since 1971. In just the past few weeks, 12 herds (620 horses) were zeroed out on an additional 1.4 million acres in Eastern Nevada. “It would seem that the best use of taxpayer dollars and the most humane plan for the nearly 32,000 wild horses in government holding[2] would be to return them to their native lands” says Ginger Kathrens, Volunteer Executive Director of the Cloud Foundation. “These millions of acres were identified for use by wild horses and burros and these lands are already owned by the American public”.
    Rather than spending over thirty million dollars this fiscal year (October 1, 2009- September 30, 2010) to remove a record number (over 12,000 wild horses and burros) from the range, only legitimate emergency roundups and removals should be conducted. “The BLM continues to lead the public to believe that exploding populations of wild horses are causing degradation of the range and they must be removed before they all starve. This is without merit because wild horses and burros make up only a fraction of animals grazing the range, far greater damage is caused by the privately-owned cattle who outnumber the horses more than 100 to 1,” states Arizona advocate Julianne French.
    The intent of Congress’ 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act was not for wild horses to be corralled and penned. The clear intent was that the wild horses and burros be allowed to live on western rangelands designated primarily for their survival in self-sustaining populations. The BLM is not following the law in the management of America’s wild horses and burros.

    Initial Recommended Steps for the Management of America’s Wild Horses & Burros
    1) Cease all roundups until independent analysis can be made of each herd management area. Move forward only with emergency removals if deemed necessary by independent as well as BLM specialists.
    2) Return wild horses and burros in good health to the 20.8 million acres of public land designated primarily for their use in 1971 that has since been taken away from them. As per the ROAM Act (§1579): “ensure that, to the extent practicable, the acreage available for wild and free-roaming horses and burros shall never be less than the acreage where wild and free-roaming horses and burros were found in 1971.”
    3) Reanalyze appropriate management levels (AMLs) for herd management areas (HMAs). Currently only about 25% of wild horse and burro herds are genetically viable.[3] AMLs should not be reduced due to the private use of public lands for livestock grazing. Currently AML “is based on consideration of wildlife, permitted livestock, and wild horses and burros in the area.”[4] It is not cost-effective to remove wild horses from an HMA at a cost of $2600- over $3000 per individual removed in order to allow a cow/calf pair to graze for a payment of $1.36/month. Cattle, who originated in southeast Asia, damage the land to a far greater degree than wild horses, who are of North American origin.
    4) Congress should follow-up with hearings on the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program as recommended by the Government Accounting Office (2008 report).

    Photos and more information available from:
    The Cloud Foundation

    Download the Press release and send on to your local media and national media sources – available online from the Cloud Foundation here


    [1] Department of Interior press release, 10/7/2009.
    [2] Nearly 32,000 wild horses are in holding as of 10/7/2009 according to BLM records. No independent inventory has been conducted and the truth of this number cannot be verified.
    [3] Genetically viable defined here as a population of horses 1 year and older that is at or above 150-200 individuals with a Ne (genetic effective number) of 50 or more. This is the bare minimum for genetic viability of wild horse and burro population. More information here.
    [4] According to Nevada BLM site, accessed 10/8/2009

    Our mailing address is:
    The Cloud Foundation 107 South 7th St Colorado Springs, CO 80905

    Our telephone:

  3. I really wish there was a collective foundation of wild horse advocates that would combine ALL resources to combat the genetic cleansing of our wild horse herds by the DOI/BLM!

    The complaint pool is so overfilled with suggestions and solutions about how to cease round ups that it has become morose and stagnant!

    When rally cries for a march on Washington is beckoned, all that show up is a few elbow rubbing compatriots with similar ideas that usually end up sharing war stories of previous meets.

    And they wonder why nothing is being done or why they are not being took seriously!

    I sometimes sit here and surf the web for wild horse advocate message boards to keep my fingers on the publics pulse regarding the round ups. Most of the boards have a mundane redundancy about them. The boastful stand out the most and those people know who they are! They write with masterful skill and in their words they make grandeur sound so common place.

    I hate the term “wild horse expert”! So I will use the term analysts for the lack of a better word ..That’s what people like me do.
    I analyze the wild horse species as a whole and not as fragmented microcosms of itself as so many ‘”experts”‘ do.

    I am no expert nor did I ever claim to be! What I have shared throughout the internet about the wild horse is true and unique in its own right. It is free of selfless, painstaking studies and three and a half decades of following the wild horse throughout their tribulations.

    The reason that I have not published any of my work in its entirety anywhere is because there are far too many cyber vultures. These web scavengers as I like to call them, like to swoop down out of cyber space and quaff information to add to their books and web sites. I didn’t dedicate 35 years of hard work for it to be used in someone else’s page.

    Having that said.

    I wrote an article a few weeks ago and titled it,”Where Are They Now”? The article was supposed to engage a dialogue between wild horse advocates and the BLM about the 33,000 that are claimed to be in holding pens. So far all it did was end on someone else’s page as part of a moratorium.

    According to Horseback Magazine writer Steve Long whom wrote to the BLM and posed the question “Where Are They Now?” Mr. Long has failed to published any updates regarding Q&A from the BLM .

    I wonder why that is Mr Long? Do you make a practice of using someone else’s material without regard to the moderator of the question. Or maybe it’s not all of your fault.. maybe it was presented to you second or third hand..Either way,

    Where Are They Now?

    We have to keep pushing the BLM to rectify where the horses are and make them prove they are still in holding areas as they say.

    That in my opinion is how we will get the proverbial apple tree to bare fruit when we shake the hell out of it! Otherwise it wont happen if we keep writing mathematical equations and formulas that rebuke the BLM nomenclature.

  4. I am a little put off by this message, Mustang Jack. I am a “newcomer” to the whole mustang mess having just discovered it in August on the Cloud blog. I have been trying to educate myself by reading all the information on the web and what I see now is the fighting amongst ourselves that surely must delight the BLM. Of course, if I wanted to make money and write a book I would not put it on the web first, but if I wanted to try to make a difference in the hearts and minds of people that I wanted to move to the cause I would have no worry as to the material I shared on the web. Guess you have to choose.
    I do not belong to any wild horse advocate group even though I have contributed to the cause and drove on 2 separate days to the BLM meeting in Washington DC. and made comment. I do have a BLM mustang and a Chincoteague pony and am concerned for all the wild herds.
    I think the concerned people reading the blogs are just trying to help in any small way to stop the roundups and change the laws. We just need a unified organization and direction.

  5. Hello Barbara and welcome, I have been fighting horse slaughter and for our wild horses for 6 years, I didn’t know much about the wild until I met Mustang Jack ( Tony Jack Cisco ). He will tell you the facts the way they are. He states the truth no matter how harsh it seems. He knows every thing about them, and if any one can help us stop the round ups and the destruction of our wild horses, he can. He has been studying the wild horses since the 1970’s, much of the information that Craig Downer writes in his books came from reports that TJ sent to Craig over the past couple of years.
    Whether it is in TJ’s own words or not, the gist of the information is mostly due to Tony Cisco. I am a person that liked to give credit where credits due. TJ also is an equine nutritionist and exercise physiologist by trade and I give great credibility to his teachings. TJ and I have wanted wild horse activists to unite for several months now but to no avail it always seems there the few that have their own ideas.Well ideas are fine and we all have them but when they begin to divide us as a united family of advocates its time to regroup. We have to get this done but it will not happen if we don’t stay focused, we need each other to make this work effectively. Lin

  6. I agree completely with mustang 33’s last comment. There is a lot of talking in a lot of different places. I am new to the wild horse issue, and have been trying to gather information from as many different sources as possible. There is a lot of duplication. So I pose this questions to the readers and comment-ers of this blog: In the above mentioned “Initial Recommended Steps for the Management of America’s Wild Horses & Burros”, do you believe that the majority of people who want to do something to help the wild horses could agree that points 1, and 2 (minus ROAM), and 3 are a good place to start?

    I know there are other issues out there, like slaughter and cattle, water and fences, but there has to be a beginning in order to get to the end.

  7. Hello Gardenbelle and welcome, there is questions about the roam act, it’s more like a petting zoo situation where they will not be able to reproduce. This will be the end of the wild horses. Restoring or should I say fix what Burns and Reid did to the orginal wild horse and burro act of 1971. They amended it to suit themselves and many others. Self interest people like the Cattlemans Asso. We wrote a letter to congress, you can read it here

    The wild horse situation is dispeciable and I find that the longer it goes on the more corrupt our Government gets. Money and progress is more important than the heritage of America.

  8. I like your website. The content is great. However, if you want to have the best creditability and have people take you seriously, you should correct the many misspelled words through out this website. It makes it look very unprofessional .

  9. Hello Sandy,
    Thank you for visiting Wild Horse Investigation Team’s Web site. I would like to start by thanking you for taking the time to read our content so thoroughly. You recognize that we have spelling errors and we appreciate any feedback that will lead to making our site more successful and easy to read

    Linda Berardo,
    Co founder and Moderator

  10. I am trying to find ways to help these wild horses stay wild but i have’nt found a way yet. Any ideas?

  11. Hey Jack,
    I live in upstate NY, born in Southern NJ and raised there. I have been following this for about 6 yrs now. I would like to give you a name of a friend
    who is big on this also . Him and his wife a are there at the roundups. They are very compassionate about this. I just thought if you could join up with them it may open some more doors. Or maybe you already know them. It is RT Fitch.
    His home is Texas. If you are his friend already, please disregard this.
    I always follow his articles on facebook. Thanks for all you do Sweetie!!!!!

    • Fellow participants in this mustang act come join me in writing a letter to the BLM and President Obama. I am not sure if you know (probably do but anyways) the USA president has removed the free-/roaming wild horse and burro act of 1971. There is a group of people joining together to help fight this and hopefully we can get enough participants to help in the making and sending of this letter!

  12. Hi my name is Donna and I’m one of those voters of 1971 to protect the wild horse and burro act. I simple do not understand just because it has been over 40 years since this was voted for, that their is some who will round then up and sell to foreign s for money. .Why vote if it’s not up held? By the way I own a mustang and he is the most loving and smart horse I have ever known. Let’s help the horses and burro……Thank u

  13. Dear author,

    I really appreciate your advocacy. I also think these animals should be protected and left alone. I was wondering if you could share the sources for some of your information however. It would be very helpful for me in my own research (I am a PhD student in ecology), which will hopefully someday be useful to you. In particular, your statistics from that “Congressional report” about cattle and burro competition, and any other papers you find important.

    Much obliged,


    Here is the final straw. I do not agree on the use of any birth control as there is no excess of wild horses. IMHO those who agree on PZP or PZP22 are trying to compromise with the devil. It will not work as DOI/BLM are only escalating their “managing for extinction”. If all of us who love our wild horses do not unite now against DOI/BLM our wild horses will be gone .

  15. wonderful post, thank you.

  16. Eric, visit for the important research Karen Sussman has done

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