PHOTO/NEVADA HISTORICAL SOCIETY: Velma Johnson, a Reno native also known as "Wild Horse Annie," spearheaded the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

Fifty years ago this month, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which passed unanimously in the U.S. Congress, was signed into law.

We should be celebrating, but unfortunately, the law has been woefully subverted by the federal agencies that manage public lands. America’s wild horse and burro program is now in dire straits, especially the mustang and burro herds that are supposed to be wild and free, naturally living and thriving presences in their respected habitats on federal lands.

The federal law was spearheaded by animal welfare activist Velma Bronn Johnston, also known as Wild Horse Annie. Velma was my good friend and mentor. It is in her honor that as a wildlife ecologist and a Nevadan, I have been a constant advocate for wild equines and urge others to action to help restore the protections that she fought for more than five decades ago.

Restoring the intent of the law

Craig C. Downer

The situation is urgent. Restoring wild, naturally-living horses and burros and preserving their viable habitats are essential, but a vortex of greed and selfishness stands in our way. When we consider only our own species to be important and regard other life forms as merely objects to be exploited for the purpose of short-term materialistic indulgence, we endanger the entire planet.

By returning to the intent of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, we can take a step toward a healthy and more balanced ecosystem. That was the intent behind the 1971 law, which enjoyed public support then and has even more proponents 50 years later. This, the Act’s jubilee year can be the rallying point for those who want the law to be restored to its original power and intent and to break “capture” by the traditional enemies of the federal land agencies that are responsible for the wild horse and burro program.

In the decades since my work with Wild Horse Annie, I have learned many more lessons about our equine neighbors and more evidence that the Wild Horse Act is a benefit to humans and the ecosystem has come to light.

Here are some of those facts:

  • The law mandates the just integration of the wild horses and burros into the public lands ecosystem as the principal resource recipients and with management and interference at the “minimum feasible level” with their natural lifestyles and habitat. Other laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, National Historical Preservation Act, should be used to uphold the rights of wild horses and burros throughout the West to viable populations in viable habitats.
  • The Horse Family, Equidae, is of North American origin. Many species of equids, including the modern Horse, evolved on this continent, fill a valuable niche here and have a right to roam free today.  
  • Wild, naturally living horses and burros complement North America’s life community in many direct and obvious as well as more subtle ways. Their unique digestive systems, for example,  enable them to eat coarser, drier vegetation and break this down into the nutrients they need. That process can greatly benefit other grazing herbivores as well as energize and enrich the ecosystem as a whole.
  • Research shows that wild horses and burros play a major role in mitigating and often even preventing major wildfires
  • The wild equids act as Keystone species benefiting hundreds, even thousands of species of plants, animals and microorganisms, with which they have co-evolved. They contribute to many important food chains, which include canids, felids, raptors and many other important ecosystem components.
  • During colder seasons, the wild equines often open up iced-over water holes or ice-crusted vegetation so that many weaker animals can continue to eat and drink. During hot weather, they can sniff-out water sources and dig down to them, even through hard and rocky soils, thus allowing critical access to water for myriad plants and animals. They are great mutualists who, with their powerful and energetic bodies, can open up thickets to allow other animals to move around in bushlands and access important food sources. They also wallow in places such as those with clay where their wallows create natural water catchments benefiting many plants and animals.
PHOTO/CRAIG C. DOWNER: Mustangs in the Nevada desert.

Wildfires and grazing

  • Horses can help diminish the invasive cheat grass, which greatly contributes to wildfires, by eating the plants before they have set seed and by disseminating many other less invasive and native bunch grasses among other forbs and shrubs. The rounded blunt hooves of equids cut less deeply and sharply into moist meadow and streamside soils when compared with cloven-hoofed cattle, sheep, elk, deer and pigs.
  • In addition, wild horses disperse their grazing pressure over larger areas within their home ranges and, unless forced into it, do not tend to camp around water sources as do domestic cattle. They practice a form of natural rest-rotation. They also forage in a patchy manner, leaving islands of palatable grass, forbs, etc., to set seed. This is an instinctive form of wise rest-rotation that has permitted them to survive for millions of years.
“Wild Horse Annie”
  • Though Bureau of Land Management claims there were 53.4 million acres of original acres for wild horses and burros on BLM lands, and at least several million more existed on U.S. Forest Service lands in the 11 Western states at the passage of the Act, the BLM now plans to allow these wild equids on only 26.9 million acres. Research reveals that about 88 million acres actually may have qualified for being legal habitats, as the wild equids were found there in 1971. Yet, BLM, USFS and other government agencies allow cattle and sheep to forage on about  300 million acres, which include nearly 100% of the wild horse and burro legal areas and where these agencies on average allocate about 85% to 90% of the forage for livestock. This is a direct violation of the Wild Horse Act, which states that the wild equid legal areas shall be “devoted principally to the welfare and benefit” of the wild horses and burros, not the public land ranchers, oil and gas drillers, big game hunters, miners, off-road vehicle users and others.
  • In spite of government efforts to conceal the gross inequity involved, “100-to-1” more accurately describes the ratio of resource allocation of livestock and big game in relation to wild equids on the public lands. (See Managing for Extinction: Shortcomings of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program.”)
  • Public lands domestic livestock produce only 2% to 3% of the meat in beef in the US, and about 4% of the mutton, though more wool, in U.S. (see “Cash Cows: Taxes support a Wild West Holdover that Enriches Ranchers and Degrades the Land.”)
  • According to the Species Survival Commission, Equid Specialist Group: “For captive populations, we recommend a minimum population size …of 500 individuals … [but] for wild populations we recommend a minimum size of 2,500 individuals.” Yet, federal agencies ignore that crucial and knowledgeable recommendation and do not even adhere to what seems to be their own standards of from 150 to 200 individuals. (See Zebras, Asses, and Horses: An Action Plan for the Conservation of Wild Equids”.)
  • In 1859, there were an estimated two to three million wild horses on the plains, prairies, deserts and mountain ranges of the U.S., but by 1976, five years after the passage of the WFHBA, only about 60,000 remained. Though 17,000 is the official figure given by BLM for wild horses on the public lands at the passage of the Wild Horse Act in 1971, this is widely considered to be low by at least a factor of two, according to the Animal Welfare Institute.
  • Since the passage of the Burns Amendment to the Wild Horse Act in 2004, many thousands of wild horses have been shipped over the border from the U.S. to Canada and Mexico, mostly for a cruel and terrorizing end to their lives.
PHOTO/iSTOCK: A herd of wild horses running across the Great Basin desert.

‘Agency capture’

  • America’s wild horse and burro herds have either been reduced to non-viable population levels or totally eliminated in most of their 349 original legal herd areas on BLM lands, according to the Animal Welfare Institute. And an even more outrageous situation exists on U.S. Forest Service lands that should have viable wild horse and burro herds on viable habitats.
  • The smear campaign against the wild horses and burros in the wild and the ruthless infiltration and evisceration of government programs by their enemies count among the most dishonorable and unsupportable happenings today and in American history. What is termed “agency capture” has occurred in our nation’s wild horse and burro program.
  • The reestablishment of the horse and burro in the North American Great Basin, Great Plains and Prairies, as well as in many suitable western mountains and valleys can help to combat the noxious effects of global climate change by greatly balancing and enhancing the native ecosystems.
  • Wild horses and burros should be restored to their original herd areas throughout the West, including those ca. 70,000 now in government corrals and long-term holding pastures. The legality of their refuges is based upon where they were found in 1971; this should be interpreted as meaning year-round habitats. But these areas are today largely empty of wild equids: a fact that, on the face of it, evinces the gross injustice with which these marvelous animals have been treated.

Solutions exist:

We must restore the wild horse and burro herds and their habitats through “Reserve Design” and “rewilding” in order to allow for long-term, genetically-viable populations. This can be done in a way that permits these remarkable animals to harmoniously integrate into their natural habitats and to be naturally self-stabilizing in their numbers to attain a “truly thriving, natural, ecological balance” as the Wild Horse Act requires.

That can be achieved by:

  • Letting the equids reoccupy their full federally-designated Herd Areas or Territories wherever possible and in no case less than 75% of the original home range established in 1971.
  • Where a reduction in equid occupation is necessary, there shall be a compensatory acquisition of wild equid habitat of equal or greater value.
  • We must allow the horses and burros themselves and the world of nature to show us what works best for each given area and allow a natural equilibrium of species to establish itself, including natural predators such as puma, bobcat/lynx, coyote, wolf and bear. Also, all the other herbivores including ruminant deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn as well as smaller species such as rodents and rabbits, birds and reptiles, would be allowed to realize their respective roles and niches along with a great diversity of plant species.
  • Existing, but often ignored, federal regulations should be employed to reduce or curtail livestock grazing within legal herd areas and territories.
  • Mandate purchase at fair and just value of base properties and water rights in conflict with the sound establishment of viable wild horse and burro herds. This can be on a voluntary basis. But, if necessary for the survival of the herds, it can be mandated.
  • Where necessary, employ semi-permeable, artificial barriers in designing each wild horse/burro Herd Area or Territory as the true sanctuary the Act intends. The Log-&-Pole, buckrail-type fences that are employed in Montana BLM’s Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range work quite well.
  • Employ Strieter-Lite light reflectors that prevent collisions of animals with automobiles wherever major roads or highways transit or border wild horse areas. Build wild horse and wildlife overpasses where necessary.
  • Do not overly restrict the wild equids, as by fencing or other means, within their large, viably sized and complete habitats. Also, make it a policy to minimize or eliminate vehicle impacts, roads, off-road vehicles and impacts from mining or fracking within the wild equid areas.
  • Design and employ buffer zones around the wild equid areas. On those, a gradual tapering off of wild equid presence would occur through the implementation of discouragements to their moving into areas where danger exists for them, such as in farms, towns or cities. (See: , , ,
  • Employ existing law to incorporate lands from other government agencies, including state, county and municipal, as well as private lands, into the legal wild horse management areas.
  • Mount a positive, public education campaign with people who live and work around and visit the wild equid habitats so that they will positively participate in the realization of truly long-term-viable wild equid herds and their adequate, commensurate sanctuary habitats. These people could become monitors and protectors of the herds and their habitats and derive benefits, as for example, from ecotourism and/or subsidies from the government in adopting this very worthy goal in life.
  • End the draconian, herd-gutting roundups, often by helicopter or bait- or water-tapping, which disrupt the animals’ mature social units and destroy their natural form of self-regulation.
  • Do not employ invasive castration or ovariectomies, IUDs, nor fertility control drugs such as PZP and GonaCon.  Those methods torture and debilitate, genetically alter, cause out-of-season, deformed and still-born births – and often kill — the wild horses and burros. And over the generations, such management causes social disruption and in summation is a form of domestication that is entirely antithetical to the true and core purpose and intent of the Wild Horse Act. “Reserve Design” is the solution, not the current cruel and disrespectful kind of treatment of the wild equids that places them at the very bottom position of priorities within their own legal areas.
  • Work to have America’s wild horses and wild burros declared as UNESCO World Heritage, as well as in the United States, National Heritage species.

And remember, it is only in the wild, natural bio-diverse world that has established itself over the course of millions of years, that the true vigor of the species — and the life community we all share — is preserved.

Guest opinion columnist Craig C. Downer of Minden is a wildlife ecologist and president of the Wild Horse and Burro Fund and the Andean Tapir Fund. He is the author of “The Wild Horse Conspiracy” and many scientific articles about wild horses, mountain tapirs, Perissodactyls and their environments. He worked with Wild Horse Annie (Velma Bronn Johnston) in the 1970s when the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act was first being implemented. His websites are and Links to the details of Downer’s “Reserve Design” proposal, a plan to restore the wild equine populations to long-term viable levels, in viable habitats and in sustaining herds, may be found online.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks so much for publishing my article. It’s imperative that people who appreciate and care about America’s wild horses and burros band together to overthrow the stranglehold that the wild horse and burro enemies have on the program and restore the true intent of the WFHBA as per the points I have outlined in this article and using the justifications presented here.

  2. There a side of this story which has been omitted by Mr. Downer, and is essential information.

    If only our society was following a different path, one that does not worship money, driven by ego.

    But its not. That’s a fact.

    Sadly, economics and the law of ‘supply and demand’ provide the overarching and immutable power and influence over American politics, resulting in the flawed management of natural resources in America.

    ‘Consumers’ and consumerism are killing the planet and wild horses. And we are all ‘consumers’ to one extent or another…

    When you figure out a PRACTICAL way to get the 97% of Americans that demand livestock based products, to stop buying them, you let me know!

    In a perfect world, wild horses would have never been removed from the 53-million acres allotted and assigned to wild horses under the 1971 Act to protect wild horses and burros…..

    However, we do not live in a perfect world, never have, never will.

    Going back millennia in the history of human society and culture, we see people doing wrong, unbridled corruption in politics and government, and nothing has changed since the fall of Rome.

    Our society simply puts lipstick on that pig, and moves forward, pretending everything is just fine.

    You are well behind the curve my friend with preaching world change…

    Our greatest Theologists and Philosophers (a very long list of men and women) have been hard at work there for centuries….. what is result?

    Humankind is more brutal, sinister, uncaring, greedier and ego-centric than ever.

    Unfortunately Range Design is a non-starter, regardless of all the reasons anyone can list. And a long list of reasons doesn’t change anything in the real world of socioeconomics.

    Recently, I was asked to do an interview with a former Wall Street lobbyist, who is now rescuing sea turtles and advocating to save wild horses. Staci-lee Sherwood and I discussed the issues, including why Range Design is just a non-starter, are covered in a little detail:


    This article (just below), covers the BIG picture, which unfortunately eludes you, otherwise you would have shelved the idea long ago…

    ‘Economics vs. Wild Horses: A Management Conundrum with A Silver Lining’: Published at RT Fitch:

    I see that it will be hard for you to comprehend the gravity of scope of power and influence that the $10-Trillion/year (U.S. alone) multi-national corporations have, and how THEY actually run the show here in America and around the world.

    You would do well to get started on gaining some genuine appreciation for that Massive fly in the ointment for Range Design.

    It’s just folly for anyone to think they can somehow direct a ~$10-Trillion dollar/year Goliath to change how they are doing business… it would probably be easier to change the orbit of the moon around the earth…

    Litigation against the government and corporations have been tried ad-nausea… thousands of lawsuits have been used… and what has that achieved? End Result: Largest roundups in history and wild horses circling the drain. WAKE UP!

    In order to actually save wild horses, while there’s still sand in their hourglass, we must align behind a plan that the $10-Trillion/year corp. giants will see as agreeable to them as well…. that is the reality.

    At this 11th hour in the battle to save America’s remaining wild horses (and burros), proffering concepts that are based upon wishful thinking are non-starters will merely distract people trying to help from the path and plan that can actually save wild horses, and like the band-aid of PZP and roundups, will just get more wild horses and burros removed from the landscape and killed.

    I can understand why you have great difficulty grasping the economic realities:

    You have zero-experience in corporate business, which leaves a huge hole in your ability to fully identify and comprehend the reasons why the advocacy has failed miserably to save wild horses and keep them unmolested, ‘wild and free’, after 40-years of activism and nearly $100-million in donations. FAILED!

    And as you have cited yourself, you have been involved with trying to save wild horses for the past 40+ years as well… Nevertheless, wild horses are circling the drain. That should give you a big clue…

    Doing the same things over and over without the desired result should be a wake-up call, telling you that you just don’t have the holistic overview that is requisite in order to tender a workable, practical solution. Hence, wild horses are circling the drain.

    After just spending $59-million in taxpayer dollars (FY 2021) rounding-up wild horses from HMAs, the posit that they should then be put back into the areas where they were recently removed is just fairy-tale thinking and shows a total disconnect from the realities. The Marr Plan posits the same thing… and it also comes from the mind of another well-meaning man with no corporate experience, who also fails in understanding the big picture.

    This Newsweek article may help you to understand what’s gone wrong, and how to become more effective:

    In closing, the Solution that can save America’s wild horses, with the blessings of a majority of economic stakeholders and wild horse advocates was cited in this article from Colorado’s Pagosa Daily Post:

    In closing, wild horses need an immediate and practical plan that is acceptable to a majority of stakeholders, with emphasis on the corporate giants who are calling all the shots, in order to save wild horses, not wishful thinking.

    The ‘NATURAL WILDFIRE ABATEMENT AND FOREST PROTECTION PLAN’ (aka: Wild Horse Fire Brigade) is a plan that rewilds and relocates wild horses into designated wilderness areas, where they can live unmolested, wild and free as an integral part of the public lands, pursuant to the intent of the 1971 Act.

    Check out this article and learn WHY wild horse activists have failed to effectively provide true conservation of wild horses in America, even after 30-years of activism and spending over $100-million in donation dollars. Mr Downer has been one of those activists, and yet, he remains in denial of the failings of the wild horse activists (not sanctuaries).

    Here is an important article that is not emotionally based and candy-coated:

    Sincerely, William E. Simpson II – Naturalist
    Living-among and studying free-roaming wild horses

  3. Thank you for all you do It is very upsetting to see so many folks opposed and writing and calling our leaders to tell them of our concerns and no one responds, or if they do, their replies are curt or unrelated to our concerns about the heinous abusive roundups and all that happens to our wild horses and burros. Please don’t stop doing what you are doing. The horses need a voice. I’ve read your Wild Horse Conspiracy book. It’s so very frustrating to watch what is happening.

  4. Reserve Design can work, as a matter of fact it is the most intelligent and realistic approach to restoring the true intent of the WFHBA along with the herds and their habitats. They would do a world of good, including through soil restoration, plant seeding and catastrophic wildfire mitigation and even prevention. We must not be overwhelmed by the big monied interests, but take the longer view of life and how excesses are checked over time. We must keep alive the vision. People are basically good when in their right mind they will do what’s right to restore the true intent of the WFHBA. But true moral courage, ecran in French, will be required on the part of us all to correctly face this and all related challenges concerning the future of precious life on Earth that are now upon us all. Merry Christmas and let’s look forward to a Bright and Progressive New Year 2022!

  5. Happy New Year, Bill. I think you are much too negative. It is one thing to look soberly at the present state of affairs, but when you forget about the amazing spirit that resides in all of life and of its higher callings — which are in all of us, then you bog down in a cynical and destructive spiral. — Let us be borne up by our higher visions of all that precious life on this amazing planet can be and not be hung up on what seems to be so unchangeable. People can change! Attitudes can change! Ways of living on this planet can change such that people learn to share the land and freedom with the likes of the wonderful horses and burros and the habitats that, as you so well know, they greatly restore and enhance. This is my challenge to you this New Year’s Day!

  6. So appreciate your encouragement, LJ. Yes this New Year’s Day, I pledge to do just as you say. I will not relent. The realization of that vision I share with Wild Horse Annie and so many other humans is yet to come. We must just believe and act upon our inspirted believe. In the Light of a Better Tomorrow, your friend and costriver, Craig

  7. Hi Craig and William. I commend you both for your resolve in fighting the machine, haha. I choose to form my opinions through over 60 years of observation of Nevada rangeland use and abuse by both bovines and equines. I have a college degree that indicates I’m qualified to make this assessment but my observation is obviously subject to flaws due to the fact that it is observation rather than science based, but at least I acknowledge it. My life’s work is not in being an influencer. I encourage people to become knowledgeable about issues before forming opinions. I guess that makes me an influencer of sorts, influencing education so to speak. It seems to me horse advocacy groups speak to the heart in fundraising but try to find “science” (fuzzy at times) to support their cause…really no different than your adversarial fund raising machines. Craig, I’ve commented on one of your previous opinion articles encouraging readers to become informed of opinions that don’t always align with their own but alas, confirmation bias reigns king these days in politics as well as other issues. Good day to you both.

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