DATE: December 15, 1971
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-12-76):
ANCHOR: These wild horses are the central characters in an on-going ecological drama.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 1-4-85):
ANCHOR: It’s a bit of the Old West which survives today. And so does the controversy.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-30-04):
BRIAN WILLIAMS: These days there is a battle raging in the American West over what many see as the embodiment of the national spirit: wild horses!
NARRATION: America has been fighting a war over wild horses since 1971, when Congress passed a landmark law protecting animals it called “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-17-71):
ANCHOR: Today President Nixon signed a bill to make killing them a federal crime.
NARRATION: The measure promised to end the widespread harassment and slaughter of mustangs and assure them a secure place on America’s public lands. But that’s not how things turned out.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-18-87):
DAN RATHER: The government says there are too many of those horses. Too many by the thousands.
DAVE PHILIPPS: I think this whole thing is a train wreck that is maybe months away from coming off the rails.
NARRATION: The 1971 Wild Horse Law made protecting wild horses a national priority. But what’s happened to the horses it saved ?
WILD HORSE WARS:
NARRATION: Wild horses descend from animals brought to North America by Spanish conquistadors. At the turn of the century, vast herds roamed the West – as many as a million by one estimate. But by 1970, that population had fallen to less than 18,000 – victim of a pet food industry hungry for cheap meat.
ARCHIVAL (THE MISFITS, 1961):
CLARK GABLE: Get that horse!
NARRATION: The 1961 movie The Misfits dramatized the brutality of horse roundups, a practice which enraged a growing number of animal-lovers.
DAVE PHILIPPS (REPORTER, COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE): The mustang, maybe more than any other animal in America, is a symbol. It means freedom, it means defiance. It means scrappy but noble. In a sense, it means us, right? It is the American. And to have something that we hold in such esteem, at the same time, not only abused, but turned into dog food, was just something people could not deal with in their minds.
GREG GUDE: Knowing that animals were being hunted down, slaughtered, butchered and sold as pet food just really burned me up.
NARRATION: Greg Gude was a young boy when he discovered the plight of the mustang in the pages of an illustrated children’s book. Its main character was a tenacious Nevada activist with a catchy nickname.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS):
REPORTER: Velma Johnston has fought for the protection of these horses all her life and she is known as Wild Horse Annie.
NARRATION: Wild Horse Annie enlisted school children in a national letter-writing campaign. By some accounts, they flooded Congress that year with a volume of letters second only to mail received about the Vietnam War. But Greg Gude didn’t need to write letters. His father, Gilbert Gude, held one of Maryland’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
GREG GUDE: I lived with my Congressman. I could lobby at the dinner table. I think it probably took a hunger strike.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 4-19-71):
WALTER CRONKITE: An 11-year-old boy persuaded his father, a Congressman, to introduce a bill to protect wild horses and burros on the western plains. Then the boy, Greg Gude, of Maryland, appeared today to testify…
NARRATION: When President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law in December of 1971, it became a federal crime to kill mustangs on public lands. This largely halted the commercial capture and slaughter of wild horses roaming the West. But it wasn’t long before mustangs were making news again.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-21-76):
ANCHOR: It may surprise you to hear there’s a surplus of wild horses in what was once the Wild West.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-16-74):
REPORTER: There has been, according to the Interior Department, a wild horse population explosion.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-12-76):
REPORTER: They are reproducing on public lands at a rate estimated from 5 to 20 percent per year.
NARRATION: The rising horse population drew criticism from ranchers paying to graze sheep and cows on public lands. The cattlemen said unchecked mustangs were damaging the range, eating grass that ought to be feeding domestic stock.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 1-4-85):
RANCHER: They’re just getting too many on the range. They’re running the cattlemen out of business.
DAVE PHILIPPS: As soon as the law passed, there were essentially more horses than the government knew what to do with. There’s only a certain amount of grass out there, especially in the West, and most of it’s already spoken for.
NARRATION: For the last three decades, this perceived grass shortage gave rise to a curious yearly ritual. Anywhere on the range the Bureau of Land Management decides horses are too numerous, it sends in the helicopters. Like flying sheepdogs, the aircraft chase bands of horses out of the hills, herding them, coaxing them, scaring them into a funnel-shaped corral. Whether the round-ups happen in the heat or in the snow, they follow the same pattern. And they end when cowboys on the ground release what’s called a Judas horse – a domestic animal trained to lead its wild disciples into captivity. Watching the drama from the sidelines are contenders in a high plains standoff.
GINGER KATHRENS: If was just a little bit warmer…
NARRATION: Wild horse advocates like filmmaker Ginger Kathrens set up their cameras alongside media observers, watching for cruelty to horses. Kathrens doesn’t want to see helicopters chase mustangs at all.
CHAD HUNTER (BLM INCIDENT COMMANDER): It doesn’t happen very often, a horse might come in, might slip on the ice…
NARRATION: Sometimes she confronts the BLM directly.
GINGER KATHRENS (SPEAKING TO CHAD HUNTER AT THE HORSE ROUND UP): We want to go on record as saying that we don’t think that this roundup ought to start today. We think it’s too dangerous, too cold, and too risky.
GINGER KATHRENS (WILD HORSE ADVOCATE): Helicopter roundups are incredibly stressful on the animals. Foals will sometimes literally have their hooves fall off their feet. If you’re wondering why our public lands are overgrazed or degraded, you need to look at the millions of head of livestock, cattle and sheep, that are permitted to graze out here.
NARRATION: On the other side, ranchers stake their own claim to America’s Western past.
BOB GARRETT (RANCHER): I roped my first wild horse when I was 11. That was in 1952. There are people that think the wild horse is a symbol of the American West. I think every rancher will tell you that we’re riding the horses that built the American West.
NARRATION: Garrett says activists have browbeaten the BLM into culling too few mustangs.
BOB GARRETT: I have a place in my heart for the wild horse. But there would be a lot of us out of business if we didn’t have public lands to graze on.
DAVE PHILIPPS: If you talk to the advocates, spend some time at a round up with them, eventually they’ll talk about how the BLM is in the pocket of big ranchers. And if you talk to the ranchers, if you spend any time at their ranches, they will talk to you about how the government, the BLM, is in the pocket of the advocates.
NARRATION: At the end of this roundup in February 2013, the BLM treated a few dozen mares with a birth-control drug and let them go. It also took another 160 horses off the range for good. Those animals joined the more than 7,000 mustangs removed from federal rangelands last year. But that raises a big question: what is the government supposed to do with all these horses? The goal is to find them permanent homes. Even so, periodic exposes over the years reveal that the animals sometimes met a different fate.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 1997):
ROGER O’NEIL: NBC News has been told by just about everyone we talked with, a large number of BLM horses likely end up slaughtered.
DAVE PHILIPPS: The BLM sort of binges and purges when it comes to horses. They’ll ignore the problem of overpopulation until it gets really bad and they they’ll do something they regret. And so in the 80s they sold a bunch of horses to people that then slaughtered them. And then in the 90s they started doing the same thing again, sort of, but quietly.
NARRATION: The BLM insists it does not knowingly sell horses to so-called kill buyers. And today, the growing number of horses and fewer adoptions have given rise to what may be the biggest unintended consequence of the 1971 law.
GUS WARR (BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT): The Bureau of land management is probably the largest horse owner in the continental United States. Maybe the world.
NARRATION: There are nearly 50,000 formerly wild horses and burros living in corrals and long-term holding pastures in the Midwest. They’re eating grass on the government dole. The BLM spends $43 million a year to board these captured animals. Five years ago, the Government Accountability Office warned the ballooning holding costs will “overwhelm the program.”
GUS WARR: I mean we’re talking, 40, 50, 60 percent of our budget is going to just holding and caring of animals.
NARRATION: Today, more American mustangs live in government pens or pastures than are estimated to live in the wild.
GUS WARR: We’re full up. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to go with them. I really don’t know what to say other than it’s not sustainable.
NARRATION: An independent scientific review recently found that the BLM’s current program is not controlling the population. The study recommended wider use of birth-control drugs but acknowledged there’s no easy way forward.
GREG GUDE: It’s a problem – and not an easy one to solve.
BOB GARRETT: They really made a mess of it. Are they wild horses when they are in captivity?
GINGER KATHRENS: It’s awful. We have to manage wild horses on the range.
DAVE PHILIPPS: I don’t think anybody likes it, but nobody can find a way out of it. The law really did save the wild horse. The question is, what do we do with the horses we saved?