The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced Tuesday that it will be taking new steps to secure the health and safety of adopted wild horses and burros through the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Incentive Program.
“We are committed to the health and safety of adopted wild horses and burros,” said BLM Deputy Director for Programs Nada Wolff Culver. “While the vast majority of adopters already adhere to our requirements to provide a good and caring home, the BLM is now taking additional steps to secure the health and safety of adopted animals. We will begin to make additional compliance visits post-adoption, bring more scrutiny to potential adopters, and increase warnings to sale barns about the risks of illegally selling wild horses and burros, among other steps.”
The new steps are designed to decrease the possibility that horses are adopted but later sold to private parties who may then sell horses to slaughter operations.
The BLM oversees the Wild Horse and Burro Program, established in 1971 by an act of the federal government with the goal of managing wild horse populations and protecting the animals from ordinary citizens who had for years rounded them up and sold them to slaughter.
But wild horses being adopted out in recent years under the program have also been going to slaughter. The New York Times reported on this in May.
This would no doubt sicken Velma Bronn Johnston. Known as Wild Horse Annie, Johnston was an animal welfare activist who campaigned to stop cruelty toward Nevada’s wild horses and burros.
She was born in Reno in 1912. In 1950, Johnston saw a truck overcrowded with horses. It had blood dripping from the back. She followed the truck to a slaughterhouse. When she learned the horses were free-roaming and had been gathered from Nevada’s Virginia Range, she took action.
On Sept. 8, 1959, Johnston’s campaign resulted in federal legislation banning people from hunting and capturing free-roaming horses on federal land. This became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act. Johnston kept fighting, though, and 12 years later, the 92nd United States Congress unanimously passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act
Horses versus cattle
The latest BLM estimate from March 2021 determined there are about 72,000 wild horses on federal lands and 14,000 burros for a total of more than 86,000. More than half of which, some 47,000, are in Nevada.
The bureau estimates the range can support 26,785 wild horses and burros on rangelands across 10 Western States.Wild horse advocates argue that the land could support many more were it not for grazing permits issued to cattle ranchers.
A 2019 documentary entitled Horse Rich & Dirt Poor stoked dispute between advocates of wild horses and members of the cattle ranching industry. Horse advocates said the documentary scapegoated wild horses for rangeland problems while ignoring the contributions of cattle to rangeland degradation. Ranchers, on the other hand, say cattle on public lands are managed as part of their grazing leases, management practices that do not apply to free-roaming horses
The federal grazing fee for 2021, announced in January, is $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM) for public lands administered by the BLM and the same for lands managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. The 2020 public land grazing fee was the same.
According to the BLM, “Nevada administers 668 grazing authorizations on 797 grazing allotments and has the most public land authorized for grazing by the bureau—about 43 million acres. Nevada permits about 2 million AUMs.
In addition to the more than 86,000 wild horses and burros on rangelands, there are some 50,000 wild horses and burros being held off-range in corrals and pastures.
The BLM in 2019 started paying people up to $1,000 to adopt wild horses being kept in holding pens, but horse advocates, as well as lawmakers, have recently been pushing to end wild horse adoption incentives.
New protections to be added for adoptable horses
Under current adoption rules, prior to a wild horse or burro being adopted, an individual must certify—under penalty of prosecution—that they won’t knowingly sell or transfer the animal for slaughter or for processing into commercial products.
The BLM limits adopters to four animals within a 12-month period and prohibits the transfer of title for at least 12 months from the adoption date. The bureau also conducts compliance inspections on animals while in private care prior to title transfer.
The BLM plans to take the following actions to provide further oversight and protection of adopted wild horses and burros:
- Continue to work with partners and other stakeholders to evaluate potential improvements to the Adoption Incentive Program, consistent with relevant laws and regulations.
- Ensure all adoption applications and agreements clearly and consistently state that the adopter must provide humane care and require the adopter to certify that they will not knowingly sell or transfer ownership of an adopted animal to any person or organization that intends to resell, trade or give away the animals for slaughter or processing into commercial products.
- Improve the screening of adoption applicants to better ensure that ineligible individuals are identified and excluded from participating in the adoption program, consistent with relevant laws and regulations.
- Conduct an inspection of wild horses and burros adopted through the Adoption Incentive Program within six months of adoption date, rather than twelve months.
- Have a veterinarian certify all title applications for wild horses and burros adopted through the Adoption Incentive Program in order to receive the incentive payment.
- Increase posting of warning notices at livestock sale facilities, highlighting criminal penalties for illegally selling untitled wild horses and burros.
- Continue to refer cases to relevant U.S. Attorneys for potential violations under 18 USC 1001 for making false or misleading statements on adoption and title applications and agreements.
- Evaluate changes to federal regulations that strengthen protections for adopted wild horses and burros.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.