Iowa Public Television


Wild Horses: American Icons

posted on February 16, 2007

As the administrator of public land located primarily in 12 western states, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, is confronted by myriad challenges.

The agency is charged with maintaining the health, diversity and productivity of the land. In doing so, the BLM must balance pressure from livestock producers, recreational users and extractive industries like timber harvesting and mining, which all compete for land use.

The BLM also is responsible for protecting an estimated 32,000 wild horses and burros that continue to run free on public rangeland. Laurel Bower Burgmaier rode with the BLM recently on a wild horse roundup and filed this report.


Wild Horses: American Icons

Art DiGrazia, Bureau of Land Management: "These horses have gone to places the man from Snowy River could never go because some of the country out here, especially in Utah, is very steep and beautiful. But, it is very rugged and these horses can take you anywhere you want to go. It's kind of like having a piece of the Old West for your very own!"

As much a symbol of rugged independence as they are of beauty and grace, wild horses are the ultimate icons of the American West.

For many, images of wild mustangs galloping across the open range conger feelings of freedom and strength, and may explain why they have been protected so fervently over the years. In the 1950s, a Nevada woman named Velma Johnston, later known as "Wild Horse Annie," was concerned about the ruthless and indiscriminate manner in which wild horses and burros were being hunted. She led a grass roots campaign, involving school children writing letters to Congress, that outraged the public so much that a July 15, 1959 Associated Press article noted, "Seldom has an issue touched such a responsive chord."

Wild Horse Annie's actions eventually led to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act signed by President Richard Nixon in 1971. The Act ensured the protection and management of the animals and prohibited anyone other than authorized agents of the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from removing wild equine from public lands. Over the years, there have been amendments, but the mission has remained the same.

Art DiGrazia, BLM: "We want to make sure there is a balance between wildlife, range cattle and wild horses and burros, and make sure they all get their fair share."

According to the Bureau of Land Management or BLM, an estimated 32,000 equine are roaming on public lands, about 4,000 head more than those lands can support. Since the animals have few predators, overpopulation often leads to starvation, in- breeding and other problems. On average, wild horse and burro populations increase about 20 percent each year. Through intensive management, the BLM determines the appropriate number of wild horses and burros each area can support.

Chad Hunter, BLM: "The first process is we have to determine if there is excess wild horses out here and we do that by monitoring the vegetation, the water. And when we determine there is excess wild horses, then we organize a team to come do the gather for us. We set up the panels that you see behind me here, we set up the jute wings, and we bring the horses in using the helicopter and use domestic horses to lead those mustangs to the trap."

Hunter says the humane treatment of the animals during all phases of handling is the top priority. After removing the animals from the wild, the main goal is to place them with owners through its adoption program --the primary method for controlling equine populations.

Art DiGrazia, BLM: "Since the adoption program started, over 200,000 wild horses and burros have been adopted throughout the United States."

Before being adopted, the wild horses are taken to a holding facility where they are sorted, vaccinated and freeze branded. The BLM monitors each animal individually to ensure it is healthy.

The adopter also must meet specific requirements. One year after signing an adoption agreement, the adopter may receive title to the wild horse or burro provided he or she has properly cared for the animal. The adopter also is required to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, indicating that the animal will not be sold for slaughter. A BLM freeze brand ensures it cannot be commercially exploited. For 30 years, DiGrazia has seen the adoption numbers go up and down and he hopes the public will continue adopting the free-spirited animals that once inspired Wild Horse Annie to make a difference.

Art DiGrazia, BLM: "Today, the adoption numbers are going down a little, folks aren't right now in the adoption mode, but just this last weekend, we did have a pretty good adoption. I guess I can gage it by about seven or eight years ago, we used to have adoptions, we'd go out on a weekend and have an adoption of about 170-head. Now, we have about 40 or 50-head a weekend now."

"What do you think is the change?"

"Well, it costs a lot of money to keep a horse and I think that folks, maybe some of them, don't want to spend the time that it takes because there's two things that you must have when you adopt one of these horses: you have to have time and patience. If you have that, you will have an experience like you've never had before. These animals will bond to you like no other animal has."

DiGrazia says anyone interested in adopting a wild horse or burro can go to the closest holding facility, call the local BLM office, or visit the government website for more information.

Chad Hunter, BLM: "The first time I came out chasing wild horses, you know, the excitement and just the experience of being with horses and that feeling of being with something so free and spirited. Ever since then, I was hooked."

For years, Americans have had a romance with these majestic animals. And while the Wild Horse and Burro program has seen many successes, it most certainly will face challenges as demand for public land continues to grow --and that's why horse lovers like Chad Hunter and Art DiGrazia hope others will help protect wild mustangs.

Art DiGrazia, BLM: "Once you get around these particular horses, and they form a bond with you, when that horse takes its first step towards you and says, 'I trust you,' there is to this day goose bumps that run up my back."

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.


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