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History and Facts

A herd of wild horses stirring up clouds of dust  

Preserving a Symbol of the American West

The mid-20th century harvesting of wild horses for commercial purposes induced a Reno, Nevada, secretary – Velma Johnston – to begin a campaign that led to passage of a 1959 law to protect these iconic animals.  While driving to work one day in 1950, Ms. Johnston noticed blood leaking from a livestock truck.  She followed it and discovered that horses were being delivered to a slaughterhouse.  Ms. Johnston responded with a massive letter-writing campaign by students to prevent other wild horses from meeting a similar end.  The campaign became known as the “Pencil War” and Ms. Johnston was affectionately dubbed “Wild Horse Annie.”

Follow-up efforts resulted in the enactment of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the landmark law that directs Federal management of wild horses and burros on U.S. public lands.

The Act declares wild horses and burros to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”  Under the law, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service manage herds in their respective jurisdictions within areas where wild horses and burros were found roaming in 1971.

To help carry out its assignment, the BLM established the Wild Horse and Burro Program, through which the agency manages and protects wild horses and burros, both on and off the range, while striving to maintain rangeland health.


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