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North Dakota: Badlands park to remove 10 horses

by Kaycee Monnens for Tri-State Livestock News

As a routine management matter, the Teddy Roosevelt National Park plans to remove a few horses from its herd.

The American Wild Horse Campaign, whose aim is to “keep wild horses and burros wild,” recently released a statement which claimed that the Teddy Roosevelt National Park has begun a removal of the herd.

To be clear: “There are no plans to remove the herd from the park. Currently, the park manages to prevent growth of the herd, with annual removal objectives matching reproductive input. This remains the park’s goal.”



Yearly management of the herd has been in place since its institution. “Horse capture and removal has been standard practice since the herd was fenced into the park with the first roundup of 200 animals in 1954. Herd reduction is conducted to maintain healthy animal numbers considering available forage and competition with native wildlife. This remains the park’s goal. Management of the horse herd is similar to management of bison and elk herds,” says TRNP.

North Dakota’s only wild horse herd resides in the Badlands of the Teddy Roosevelt National Park near Medora. According to the park, “It is home to a wide array of native wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, deer, mountain lions, pronghorn, coyote, and other charismatic species that depend on mixed grass prairie, ash draws, juniper stands, river bottoms, and cottonwood galleries as habitat interspersed among the erosive badlands landscape along the Little Missouri River corridor.”



Theodore Roosevelt, considered by many to be the most conservationally-minded president in the nation’s history, felt very much at home in the barren badlands. It is only fitting that the park be named after him–as he protected 230 million acres of public lands during his presidency–in the area where “the romance of my life began,” as he said.

The TRNP’s wild horse herd has been present for over seven decades, when a fence was constructed to reintroduce a bison population into the park in the 1950s. The TRNP is also home to a longhorn herd, which neighbors the wild horse herd. “Horses and [longhorns] continue to be maintained on park lands as demonstration herds which represent a historic scene reminiscent of the time that Theodore Roosevelt lived in the area. The [longhorn] herd is in the North Unit and the horse herd is in the South Unit,” says TRNP

All removals are done for the sake of the herd, which compete in a fenced-in area for forage and water. The goal for removal this spring is up to 10 animals, while the total number of horses is currently at 170. TRNP says, “During the week of March 22, the park removed four horses and all have exceeded the reserve price bid on a Government Services Administration auction site.” All removed horses are transferred to private citizen ownership in this way. Interested parties should navigate to: https://gsaauctions.gov.

One historical–perhaps romantic–tale of the wild horse herd is that it is descendant from Sitting Bull’s ponies. While there are no official documents that could prove this for certain, it does remain a possibility that some are of that lineage. “Collaborative genetic research between park and university scientists has revealed maternal lineages related to American Paint Horse, Thoroughbred, and a variety of domestic breeds distributed globally. Nuclear genetics research has thus far been unable to resolve clear genetic relationships linking the herd to a specific breed of horse,” says TRNP.

Of course, inbreeding is a concern with a fenced-in herd. On this, the park says, “The same collaborative research has demonstrated that the park herd has less genetic diversity than other feral herds and most but not all domestic breeds. The introduction of horses to mix blood lines during the 1980s was controversial and marginally successful. This and a variety of other topics will be addressed through a future planning process that will include public engagement, public comment, and the best available science to develop a new horse management plan.”

While many may not know about the wild horse herd in the badlands of North Dakota, they remain a top attraction in the Teddy Roosevelt National Park. TRNP says, “[The park] offers world-class recreational opportunities along with solitude found in an uncrowded national park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park and other natural places are critical for the nation to return to a state of well-being and health after the pandemic subsides.”

The park was first established as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park in 1947, and then redesignated by Congress as Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1978. The park encompasses 70,447 acres across three separate units in Billings County and McKenzie County, North Dakota. The park memorializes Theodore Roosevelt and his conservation accomplishments in addition to preserving the landscape that shaped him as a president and conservationist. As a young man, Theodore Roosevelt visited Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison. One year later, he lost his mother and his wife on Valentine’s Day in 1884. He immediately traveled back to the Badlands and sought solace in the remote Little Missouri River valley north of Medora, North Dakota. He built the Elkhorn Ranch, bought a large herd of cattle, and lived the strenuous life of a cattle rancher alongside the Little Missouri River while healing his heart. Roosevelt declared the Badlands as the place where “the romance of my life began.” As he ranched, hunted, and explored the scenic landscape, he developed the foundation for a conservation ethic that resulted in his protection of 230 million acres of public lands during his presidency. The landscape is preserved as Roosevelt saw it. It is home to a wide array of native wildlife, including bison, big horn sheep, elk, moose, deer, mountain lions, pronghorn, coyote, and other charismatic species that depend on mixed grass prairie, ash draws, juniper stands, river bottoms, and cottonwood galleries as habitat interspersed among the erosive badlands landscape along the Little Missouri River corridor.

Many believe the wild horse herd is descended from Sitting Bull's ponies. While this can't be proved, there are mixed breeds in the wild horse herd today, and it remains a possibility.
Herd management is crucial for overall health, as animals in the park compete for water and forage resources. The herd has been subject to management removals since its establishment in the 1950s.

 


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