Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Virginia Range Foals Challenge Painting #393

While I was researching this Background history of the Virginia Range, I was surprised to learn that the Virginia Range at this time is not under the management of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program. Logic would tell most of us that since it is where the first activities of  Velma Johnston and her husband to advocate for mustangs started, that it should be the main and most high profile location, and possibly even a showcase for the success of the new act. It wasn't to be.
Virginia Range Youngsters
5.5 by 8.5 inches Graphite on #110 paper
by Linda L Martin Artist
Original $75.00
Signed Prints available for $35.00 each

This is where the first complication to setting up the Wild Horse and Burro Act comes in.

The land was not continuous.  Of course a wild horse doesn’t know this. A wild horse goes where the food and water is based on seasonal availability. Sometimes that would be on state land, sometimes federal, and sometimes on private property.

This mix of owner ship in land intertwined is called checkerboard. This checker boarded layout of land ownership created a lot of confusion in developing a management plan that would help the horses be protected and thrive. In the mid 1970s the Federal Government began to try to consolidate land through a series of trades and purchases to make the land continuous and easier to manage.  I remember this was happening when I was a junior in HS.  A friend’s family farm was a part of the trade for the National Park Service to secure a protected management sight and gain a smoother boarder and to allow the private land owners to have more privacy on their land.

In the meantime the fledgling Wild Horse an Burro program was having a problem figuring out how to manage. No one had any real experience in dealing with wild horses except those who had grown up in the culture of capture and release. It had never been regulated.  When people needed horses they just went and rounded them up. The round ups were generally bloody to wranglers and horses, wild and domestics alike because of the rough and rocky remote terrain in most areas where wild horses were found.

Basically before the Wild Horse and Burro Act when people wanted to upgrade a herd they just released purebred stallions into the wild herds.  In one part of the country a whole industry was built up using wild horses for dog food. They regularly released heavy stock and large muscled draft horses into the wild herds to improve their quality for that purpose.  Even the Federal Government was known to release high quality blood stock into the local wild herds so as to develop hearty usable work horse that had strength and endurance needed for artillery and cavalry remounts.

The frequent round ups on federal land prior to the 1971 act kept populations of horses under control. According to one account prior to the law protecting wild horses on public lands The BLM had no problem with private citizens rounding up the wild horses and using them any way they wanted to. At that time wild horses had no legal standing and their was no budget to manage them on federal land. Since in most places predators to the wild horses had mostly been wiped out  it was mustangers that helped keep the horses from becoming too populated.

By 1971 there was estimated between 12,000 to  17,000 wild horses left in all the Western states

When the Wild Horse and Burro Act was signed two things happened immediately. 1) it became  illegal for any private citizen to  capture, chase or harass any  wild horse for any purpose that was housed on federal public land  2) any horse on public land that had no brand was automatically designated wild even if it was a domestic or the off spring of domestic horses.

That made for a mad scramble to get as many horses off the range as possible in some locations where for generations and decades ranchers, mustangers and settlers had been storing their ranch stock on public lands until needed.  According to one book I read, published in 1979, some of the ranchers refused to go along with the law and just kept catching and releasing for years after wards because they said it was their historical right.  Their reasoning was that their grandfathers and fathers did it, so those horses were theirs.  This activity continued in some more remote areas of the country until law enforcement finally put a stop to it.

The first thing the new managing entity, The Bureau of Land Management, did under the newly created Wild Horse and Burro Program was to  conduct a census to see where the horses were actually located and  to establish  herd areas for them and the boundaries that needed to be established. By 1973 the census was completed and the Herd Areas for Wild Horses were established. The problem was in 1971 there were no unbranded wild horses on the federally managed areas of the Virginia Range.

Then something happened that no one could foresee causing a wild horse crisis in the Western States.

Friday:  Virginia Range After 1971

A special thank you to
Mikel Ann Hettrick for the use of her photography.

If you would like to read more history about the early days of the Wild Horse and Burro Act and how it came to be,  I highly recommend  The Wild Horse Controversy by Heather Smith Thomas  published in 1979  by A. S. Barnes and Co. Inc.  It can be purchased on

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