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Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971

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Title: Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971  
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Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971

Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971
Great Seal of the United States
Long title An Act to require the protection, management, and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros on public lands.
Acronyms (colloquial) WFRHBA
Enacted by the 92nd United States Congress
Effective December 15, 1971
Public Law 92–195
Statutes at Large 85 Stat. 649 (1971)
Titles amended 16
U.S.C. sections created 1331–1340
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the Senate as S. 1116
  • Committee consideration by Insular and Interior Affairs
  • Passed the Senate on June 29, 1971 
  • Passed the House on October 4, 1971 
  • Agreed to by the House Conference Committee on December 2, 1971  and by the Senate Conference Committee on December 3, 1971 
  • Signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 15, 1971
Major amendments
Sections 1332 and 1333 were modified by the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 (Public Law 95-514); Section 1338 was modified by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (Public Law 94-579); the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-333) added Section 1338a.; and Section 1333 was again modified by the Fiscal Year 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Act (Public Law 108-447)[1]

The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFRHBA), is an Act of Congress (Pub.L. 92–195), signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on December 18, 1971. The act covered the management, protection and study of feral horses and burros on federal land.

In the early 1900s, feral horse populations were in steep decline due to competition with livestock, and there was concern that the horses were destroying land and resources wanted by ranching and hunting interests. Pressure on federal agencies led to a series of policies which severely reduced herd numbers; the policies were opposed by feral horse advocates, who felt the measures were extreme and cruel to the horses. Their activism resulted first in the Hunting Wild Horses and Burros on Public Lands Act in 1959 and then to the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service manage the feral herds, and challenges to their management and implementation of the act are heard by the Department of the Interior's Board of Land Appeals. Although the BLM struggled to implement adequate herd management in many areas, in 1973 they began a successful program for adopting out feral horses to private owners, which remains the primary method of removing excess horses from managed land.

The act has been challenged numerous times in courts up to the level of the Supreme Court, and has been upheld in all instances. Charges have also been made that the BLM has turned a blind eye to the practice of private investors adopting feral horses for the purposes of slaughter, and courts have determined that the BLM may not ignore the intent of adopters. Congress has taken several actions that affect the act by including provisions in other bills. These provisions have addressed the manner in which horses may be rounded up and the method by which horses may be offered for sale or adoption. Throughout the 2000s, the BLM has struggled to prevent the horses adopted or sold to private individuals from being taken for slaughter.


The act made it a crime for anyone to harass or kill feral horses or feral burros on federal land, required the departments of the Interior and Agriculture to protect the animals, required studies of the animals' habits and habitats, and permitted public land to be set aside for their use.[2][3] In addition, the act required that Mustangs be protected as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West",[4] and that management plans must "maintain a thriving natural ecological balance among wild horse populations, wildlife, livestock, and vegetation and to protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation."[5] Although feral horse ranges were principally for the protection of the horses, the land was required to be maintained for multiple use.[3] The BLM was also permitted to close public land to livestock grazing to protect feral horse and burro habitat.[3]


Free-roaming horses in Utah

By 1900, there were two to five million feral horses in the United States.[6] However, their numbers were in steep decline as domestic cattle and sheep competed with them for resources.[7] After the mid-1930s, their numbers fell even more drastically due to intervention by the U.S. government. The United States Forest Service and the U.S. Grazing Service (the predecessor to the BLM) began to remove feral horses from federal land. The two agencies were concerned that there were too many horses on the land, which led to overgrazing and significant soil erosion. Ranchers wanted the feral horses removed because they were grazing on land ranchers wanted to use for their own livestock. Hunters were worried that as horses degraded range land, hunting species would also suffer. It was not clear that there were too many horses, or that the land was incurring damage due to the presence of the horses. Nonetheless, both agencies responded to political pressure to act, and they began to remove hundreds of thousands of feral horses from federal property. From 1934 to 1963, the Grazing Service (and from 1946 onward, the BLM) paid private contractors to kill Mustangs and permitted their carcasses to be used for pet food.[8] Ranchers were often permitted to round up any horses they wanted, and the Forest Service shot any remaining animals.[8]

Feral horse advocates were unhappy with the Forest Service and BLM's feral horse culling procedures. They argued that herding horses from the air or by motorized vehicle (such as motorcycles) terrorized the animals and caused numerous and cruel injuries. Led by Velma Bronn Johnston—better known as "Wild Horse Annie," a secretary at an insurance firm in Reno, Nevadaanimal welfare and horse advocates lobbied for passage of a federal law to prevent this kind of hunting.[8] Their efforts were successful. On September 8, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Hunting Wild Horses and Burros on Public Lands Act (Public Law 86- 234, also known as the "Wild Horse Annie Act"), which banned the hunting of feral horses on federal land from aircraft or motorized vehicles.[9]

Also at issue were BLM practices for managing horses in protected areas. Under BLM policy, ranchers could release a branded mare into a herd and then, the following year, round up the band the mare ran with for slaughter or sale.[10] In Nevada, state law permitted ranchers to round up any unbranded horses on their private land and slaughter or sell them.[11] Concerned about these practices, and about continuing horse hunts in unprotected areas, Johnston and her group began working to pass federal legislation to protect feral horses throughout the U.S.[10] She was joined by a number of prominent people, including country music singer Judy Lynn, Gunsmoke actress Amanda Blake, and New Hampshire Union Leader publisher and conservative William Loeb III.[11]


Mustangs in Arizona

The WFRHBA gave jurisdiction over challenges to BLM and Forest Service management of feral horses and how the act is implemented to the Department of the Interior's Board of Land Appeals.[12] The act also contained provisions for the removal of excess animals; the destruction of lame, old, or sick animals; the private placement or adoption of excess animals; and even the destruction of healthy animals if range management required it.[13][14]

In fact, the destruction of healthy or unhealthy horses almost never occurred. The WFRHBA left range management policy unresolved in many respects, although it did specify that BLM and the Forest Service consult with state wildlife agencies.[15] In practice, BLM struggled to accommodate the needs of feral horses among its other priorities (which included livestock grazing, prevention of soil erosion, and accommodating big game hunting).[16] In November 1971, BLM announced a major effort to save the Pryor Mountains herd from starvation after a poor summer growing season left vegetation on the range stunted.[11] By 1974, the herd on the Pryor Mountain range had increased by 17 percent over the 1968 level.[17] But there was strong disagreement over whether the population had actually increased as much as this, if at all.[14]

Pursuant to the 1978 amendments to the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA),[18] the BLM established 209 "herd management areas" (HMAs) where feral horses existed on federal land.[18] As of 2013, the number of HMAs had been reduced to 179, covering 31.6 million acres.[19] Three HMAs are dedicated solely to the protection of feral horses: the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range in Montana, the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range in Colorado and the Nevada Wild Horse Range in Nevada. Another HMA is dedicated to the protection of feral burros, the Marietta Wild Burro Range, also in Nevada.[3]

A mare attends to her foal on the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Refuge.

In 1973, BLM began a pilot project on the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range known as the Adopt-A-Horse initiative.[20] The program took advantage of provisions in the WFRHBA to allow private "qualified" individuals to "adopt" as many horses as they wanted if they could show that they could provide adequate care for the animals.[21] At the time, title to the horses remained permanently with the U.S. federal government.[14] The pilot project was so successful that BLM allowed it to go nationwide in 1976.[20] As of 2001, the Adopt-a-Horse program was the primary method of removing excess feral horses from BLM and Forest Service land.[21] The BLM also uses limited amounts of contraceptives in the herd, in the form of PZP vaccinations; advocates say that additional use of these vaccines would help to diminish the excess number of horses currently under BLM management.[22] Despite the success of the adoption program, the BLM has struggled to maintain acceptable herd levels, as without natural predators, herd sizes can double every four years. As of 2013, there were over 40,000 horses and burros on BLM-managed land, exceeding the BLM's estimated "appropriate management level" (AML) by almost 14,000. In addition to these on-range horses, there are 49,000 additional feral horses, also protected under the WFRHBA, living in off-range corrals and pastures.[19]

In January 1982, the director of BLM issued a moratorium on the destruction of excess adoptable animals.[23] From 1988 to 2004, Congress also prohibited BLM from using any funds to destroy excess animals.[24] In 2008, the BLM announced the possibility of euthanizing excess horses, a move which was quickly condemned by feral-horse advocates.[22] As of 2013, the BLM is also researching the possibility of spaying some mares to permanently prevent pregnancies,[25] and a new vaccine, the "first single-shot, multiyear wildlife contraceptive for use in mammals", has been approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency.[26]

Legal challenges

A gather of horses from the Paisley Desert Herd Management Area

The act, and the BLM's actions in implementing the requirements of the act, have been challenged in court on multiple occasions, in cases that have risen to the level of the Supreme Court. Objections have been varied, focusing on constitutionality, animal welfare and legal status of the animals. The act was challenged in court for being unconstitutionally vague and unconstitutionally overbroad. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the act in all regards in United States v. Johnson, 685 F.2d 337 (9th Cir. 1982).[27]

In November 1996, Congress passed the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act, which authorized BLM and the Forest Service to use helicopters and motor vehicles to round up and transport feral horses on public lands.[28] The use of helicopters in roundups has been challenged by feral-horse advocates on the grounds that they are dangerous to the horses. In 2011, a case was brought before the U.S. District Court in Nevada, regarding a roundup in that state, alleging in part that helicopter pilots flew too close to horses. The judge in that case issued a temporary restraining order against the "mistreatment of mustangs during BLM gathers", including inadequate distance between helicopters and animals.[29] In 2013, the BLM issued new policy directives covering humane treatment of animals during roundups, including the use of helicopters, and stated that "further animal handling policy changes [are expected] in the future".[30][31]

There were strong disagreements over the nature of the horses. Many ranchers and hunters considered feral horses to be an invasive species, or at least an introduced species. While conceding that federal law protects the animals, these individuals also argued that economic needs, such as livestock grazing, should take precedence over the horses. But advocates for free-roaming horses argued that horses were native to North America and eliminated by paleolithic human beings, and as a native wild animal they should be protected like the grizzly bear or bald eagle. To test which definition applied to feral horses, in 1974 the New Mexico Livestock Board seized 19 free-roaming feral burros which were preventing cattle from using a watering hole on federal land.[32] The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico held that, under the Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Congress could regulate wild animals only to protect public land from damage.[33] The case went to the Supreme Court of the United States. In Kleppe v. New Mexico, 426 U.S. 529 (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that these free-roaming horses and burros were, in fact, wildlife, and it rejected New Mexico's narrow construction of the Property Clause.[34] Ranchers continued to litigate the issue, however. In the early 1980s, ranching interests won a ruling from the Department of the Interior that feral horses who ate grass or drank water which ranchers had leased had "taken" these resources from the ranchers in violation of the "takings clause" of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But in Mountain States Legal Foundation v. Hodel, 799 F.2d 1423 (1986), cert. den'd. 480 U.S. 951 (1987), the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit said that a wild animal was not an "agent" of the federal government and hence could not be found guilty of "taking" the ranchers' leased grass or water.[35]

In March 1987, the Animal Protection Institute sued the Department of the Interior, arguing that BLM was turning a blind eye to "adopters" who obtained horses with the intent to slaughter. In Animal Protection Institute v. Hodel, 671 F. Supp. 695 (1987), the United States District Court for the District of Nevada held that BLM could not ignore the intent of adopters. The decision was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Animal Protection Institute v. Hodel, 860 F.2d 920 (1988). In 1997, the Animal Protection Institute and BLM signed an out-of-court settlement under which BLM would require individuals to sign an affidavit stating they had no intent to sell the animal for slaughter or for use as rodeo stock. The settlement also required BLM to establish rules requiring horse slaughterhouses to maintain paperwork on horses for no less than one year and to report any horses to which clear title was not established. BLM also agreed to no longer permit adoption by proxy or power of attorney. But the district court refused to enforce this settlement in 2000, leaving the issue unresolved.[36]

Subsequent Congressional action

In 1976, Congress included a provision in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that permitted the humane use of helicopters in capturing free-roaming horses on federal land, and for the use of motorized vehicles in transporting them to corrals.[37] When problems with the Adopt-a-Horse program emerged and the BLM was accused of allowing too many adoptions so as to deplete feral horse populations on federal land and allowing "adopted" horses to sell for slaughter, in 1978 Congress passed the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA). The PRIA limited adoptions to only four horses a year per individual and allowed BLM to relinquish title to the horse after one year (during which inspections regarding the animal's treatment were to occur).[21][37] The law also required BLM to inventory all feral horse herds, scientifically determine what constituted "appropriate" herd levels, and determine through a public process whether "excess" animals should be removed.[37] Congress further amended PRIA in 1978 to require updated herd counts.[18]

In 2004, [39] In the 2006 Interior Appropriations Act, a rider was inserted that repealed the Burns amendment; however, in the 2007 Interior Appropriations Act the clause was re-added. As of August 2012, it had not been repealed.[41]

In early 2005, the BLM discovered that some of the excess wild horses it had sold had been slaughtered.[42] BLM suspended the sales program in April 2005 and resumed them in May 2005 after implementing new requirements to deter buyers from slaughtering the animals.[43] In the fall of 2007, the last three horse slaughterhouses in the United States closed.[42][44] However, BLM procedures do not ban the export of wild horses for sale and slaughter outside the United States.[42] In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded BLM was not in compliance with the 2004 amendment, as the department had imposed limitations on the sale of excess horses to help ensure that they were not slaughtered (thus avoiding a public outcry). The GAO also stated that the BLM had a serious "dilemma" in the need to balance their charge to protect and preserve the feral horses with their charge to destroy or sell without limitation excess animals. It recommended that the BLM "develop cost-effective alternatives to the process of caring for wild horses removed from the range in long-term holding facilities and seek the legislative changes that may be necessary to implement those alternatives".[45]

In February 2009, U.S. Representatives Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, introduced HR 1018, the "Restore Our American Mustangs Act". The act, if passed, would have amended the 1971 Act to increase available acreage for feral horses, develop additional sanctuaries, "[forbid] the killing of healthy animals, and [allow] greater public participation in herd management decisions."[46] The bill passed a House vote on July 17, 2009 with a vote of 239 for and 185 against, but died in the Senate after being referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.[47][48]


  1. ^ BLM. "Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971". Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved 2014-01-15. 
  2. ^ Naughton, James M. "President Signs Bill to Protect Wild Horses on Federal Lands." New York Times. December 18, 1971.
  3. ^ a b c d Government Accountability Office, p. 13. Accessed 2011-06-07.
  4. ^ "Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range." Billings Field Office . Bureau of Land Management. U.S. Department of the Interior. May 2, 2011. Accessed 2011-05-27.
  5. ^ Iraola, p. 1056.
  6. ^ Evans, p. 134.
  7. ^ Lynghaug, p. 104.
  8. ^ a b c "The Fight to Save Wild Horses." Time. July 12, 1971. Accessed 2011-05-23.
  9. ^ "Eisenhower Signs Bill Protecting Wild Horses." New York Times. September 9, 1959.
  10. ^ a b Ripley, Anthony. "A Devoted Few Strive to Save Wild Horses." New York Times. November 15, 1970.
  11. ^ a b c Ripley, Anthony. "Woman Has Worked for 20 Years to Save America's Vanishing Wild Horse." New York Times. November 12, 1971.
  12. ^ Iraola, p. 1051.
  13. ^ Iraola, p. 1053–1054.
  14. ^ a b c Sterba, James P. "Revived Killing of Wild Horses for Pet Food Is Feared." New York Times. August 3, 1974.
  15. ^ Iraola, p. 1052.
  16. ^ Pitt, p. 515–516.
  17. ^ Pitt, p. 518.
  18. ^ a b c Glover, p. 1110–1111.
  19. ^ a b "Wild Horse and Burro Quick Facts." Bureau of Land Management. September 9, 2013. Accessed 2013-09-19.
  20. ^ a b Pitt, p. 528.
  21. ^ a b c Glover, p. 1111–1112.
  22. ^ a b Raia, Pat (March 1, 2009). "BLM Horses: What's Their Future." The Horse. Accessed 2013-09-20.
  23. ^ Government Accountability Office, p. 3. Accessed 2011-06-07.
  24. ^ Government Accountability Office, p. 59. Accessed 2011-06-07.
  25. ^ Raia, Pat (May 3, 2013). "BLM Researching Wild Mare Spayings." The Horse. Accessed 2013-09-20.
  26. ^ "Contraceptive Vaccine for Wild Horses, Burros Gains EPA Registration." February 14, 2013. The Horse. Accessed 2013-09-20.
  27. ^ Iraola, p. 1072.
  28. ^ Government Accountability Office, p. 12. Accessed 2011-06-07.
  29. ^ Raia, Pat (September 2, 2011). "Federal Judge Warns BLM Over Helicopter Use in Roundups." The Horse. Accessed 2013-09-21.
  30. ^ Raia, Pat (February 1, 2013). "New BLM Policies Address Mustang Welfare, Roundup Transparency". The Horse. Accessed 2013-09-21.
  31. ^ "Wild Horse and Burro Gathers: Comprehensive Animal Welfare Policy." Bureau of Land Management. January 23, 2013. Accessed 2013-09-21.
  32. ^ Kleppe v. New Mexico, 426 U.S. 529 (1976) at 534.
  33. ^ Kleppe v. New Mexico, 426 U.S. 529, 534–535.
  34. ^ Flores, p. 121.
  35. ^ Iraola, p. 1064.
  36. ^ Glover, p. 1113, 1115–116.
  37. ^ a b c Pitt, p. 521–522.
  38. ^ Iraola, p. 1054.
  39. ^ a b c Nack, William. "They Have to Be Free." May 20, 2005. Accessed 2011-05-28.
  40. ^ a b Government Accountability Office, p. 60. Accessed 2011-06-07.
  41. ^ "Resolution in Support of Practical, Cost-Effective Wild Horse Management." Colorado Northwest Resource Advisory Council. August 23, 2012. Accessed 2013-09-21.
  42. ^ a b c Government Accountability Office, p. 55. Accessed 2011-06-07.
  43. ^ Government Accountability Office, p. 54. Accessed 2011-06-07.
  44. ^ In January 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that a 1949 Texas law banned the possession, transfer, or sale of horse meat. This ruling forced the two slaughterhouses in Texas to close. In September 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a similar ban in Illinois, causing the plant located in that state to close. See: Empacadora de Carnes de Fresnillo v. Curry, 476 F.3d 326 (5th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 75 U.S.L.W. 3569 (2007); Cavel International, Inc. v. Madigan, 500 F.3d 551 (7th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 76 U.S.L.W. 3410 (2008); Government Accountability Office, p. 54–55, Accessed 2011-06-07.
  45. ^ Government Accountability Office, p. 60–63, Accessed 2013-09-21.
  46. ^ Raia, Pat (February 13, 2009). "House Committee Gets New Mustang Bill." The Horse. Accessed 2013-09-21.
  47. ^ "H.R. 1018 (111th): Restore Our American Mustangs Act." GovTrack. Accessed 2013-09-21.
  48. ^ "S. 1579 (111th): Restore Our American Mustangs Act" GovTrack. Accessed 2013-09-21.


  • Evans, J. Warren. Horses: A Guide to Selection, Care, and Enjoyment. New York: W.H. Freeman/Owl Book, 2002.
  • Flores, Dan Louie. Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  • Glover, Kristen H. "Managing Wild Horses on Public Lands: Congressional Action and Agency Response." North Carolina Law Review. 79:1108 (May 2001).
  • Government Accountability Office. Bureau of Land Management: Effective Long-Term Options Needed to Manage Unadoptable Wild Horses. GAO-09-77. Washington, D.C.: Government Accountability Office, October 2008.
  • Iraola, Roberto. "The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971." Environmental Law. 35:1049 (Fall 2005).
  • Lynghaug, Fran. The Official Horse Breeds Standards Guide. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2009.
  • Pitt, Kenneth. "The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act: A Western Melodrama." Environmental Law. 15:503 (Spring 1985).

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