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History of the Program

The Wild Horse Annie Act

During the 1950s in Nevada, Velma B. Johnston, later known as Wild Horse Annie, became aware of the ruthless and indiscriminate manner in which wild horses were being gathered from the rangelands. Ranchers, hunters, and "mustangers" played a major role in harvesting wild horses for commercial purposes.
Velma B. Johnston "Wild Horse Annie"

Velma B. Johnston, better known as "Wild Horse Annie"

Wild Horse Annie led a grassroots campaign involving mostly school children. The exposure how wild horses were being treated outraged people and ultimately got the public fully engaged in the issue. Newspapers published articles about the exploitation of wild horses and burros and, as noted in a July 15, 1959, Associated Press article, "Seldom has an issue touched such a responsive chord."
In January 1959, Nevada Rep. Walter Baring introduced a bill prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on all public lands. The House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill, which became known as the "Wild Horse Annie Act." The bill became Public Law 86-234 on Sept. 8, 1959, but it did not include Annie's recommendation that Congress initiate a program to protect, manage, and control wild horses and burros. Public interest and concern continued to mount, and with it came the realization that Federal protection and management was essential.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971
By 1971, the population of wild horses had declined significantly because of the encroachment of man and the mustangers' elimination of the animals.
In response to the public outcry, members of both the Senate and the House introduced a billed in the 92nd Congress to provide for the necessary management, protection, and control of wild horses and burros. The Senate unanimously passed the bill on June 19, 1971. After making some revisions and adding a few amendments, the House also passed the bill by unanimous vote. Then-President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill into law on December 15, 1971. The new law (Public Law 92-195), was titled the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
The 1971 Act was later amended by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978. FLPMA (Public Law 94-579) allowed for the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to use or contract for the use of helicopters and motorized vehicles for the purpose of managing wild horses and burros on public lands. 

The Public Rangelands Improvement Act (Public Law 95-514) established and reaffirmed:

  • the need for inventory and identification of current public rangeland conditions (through monitoring);
  • the management, maintenance, and improvement of public rangeland conditions to support all rangeland values;
  • the continuance of provisions protecting wild free-roaming horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment, or death while also facilitating the removal of excess wild horses and burros that pose a threat to their own habitat and other rangeland resources;
  • and the transfer of the title of ownership after one year to individuals that adopted wild horses and burros removed from public rangelands, so long as the animals received humane care and treatment during that year.

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