Wild Horses: Dwindling Space

Wild Horses

The Mustang Dilemma



In the early 1900s, two million horses roamed wild in North America. But that time exists only in the pages of our history books. Progress has reduced the mustang's range today, replacing grassland with farms, ranches, roads, and cities. The remaining mustangs now run through publicly-owned lands and on private sanctuaries set aside for them — small corners of the range they once reigned.

In this section, you can examine the dilemma humans and horses alike face in today's changing world.

Wild horses are the focus of much controversy today. Progress and urban sprawl force the hand of decision makers in communities across the country each day.

By the end of the 19th century, civilization had pushed wild horse herds into the most desolate and rugged regions of the west. The Nevada desert became the true home of the wild horse. Interbreeding with horses of ranchers, miners, and pioneers, wild horses belonged to no one and everyone.

In frontier days ranchers respected mustangs for their speed and their stamina. They captured the finest stallions and mares to breed with their domestic stock. But by the 1920s, tractors began replacing horses on American farms. No longer a resource, the wild horse became a pest and a nuisance, seemingly of use to no one. In the 1930s, the U.S. Government authorized the removal of wild horses from the public range. Wild horses were killed in large numbers.

Once two million mustangs roamed the American west. Soon there would be fewer than 17,000. Dawn Lappin laments the results,

"So they'd be gathered up and sent to slaughter and, of course, it made a lot of money. At the time, the hanging weight of horses was somewhere around 10 cents a pound, but if you gathered 2 to 300 horses at a time and took them to slaughter, you could make yourself a tidy bit of change."

Few people knew or cared about the slaughter. But that was about to change with the crusade of a rancher's wife named Velma Johnston, whose father had taught her to love horses. In her later life, the sight of reinforced corrals where horses were brutally treated saddened her and aroused her anger. Her enemies derisively gave her a name she now proudly bears, "Wild Horse Annie".

In the 1950s, America finally woke up to humane treatment of these animals thanks in part to "Wild Horse Annie", who took their cause to those who could make a difference. The mustangers long-running brutality and disregard for humane treatment of the wild horse propelled a movement to protect those remaining. Annie changed national policy through inspiring a grassroots campaign.

Kids were her not-so-secret weapon, and their efforts changed national law. Schoolchildren wrote thousands of letters to Congress on behalf of the wild horse. One typical letter read:

"Dear Wild Horse Annie,

Today I read your news bulletin about the wild horses. When I saw those pictures, I started crying. How can people be so cruel? Why can't we let the wild ones go their own way? Why can't we let them roam free in body and in spirit? Please, Annie, I'm only 11, but I want to help."

In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that proclaimed that mustangs are "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West and shall be protected from harassment or death."

"Wild Horse Annie" died in 1977, leaving behind a growing controversy about the place of the wild horse in the American west. Today an estimated 39,000 mustangs still roam federally managed lands in the west. The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management has stepped up to help manage the mustangs. Capturing thousands of the horses each year and making them available for adoption by citizens prevents the herds from overwhelming the rangeland. More than 140,000 wild horses and burros have been adopted throughout the United States since 1973. But wild horses remain a controversial topic as we enter the millennium.



Dwindling Space          Urbanization
Ecological Checks and Balances