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Advocates criticize wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park being treated as ‘livestock'

The National Park Service should protect the genetic diversity of the historic horse herd at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, advocates say.

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Part of the herd of wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park gathers on a hill to cool off in the breeze on a muggy August day.
Forum file photo
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FARGO — An advocacy group contends that Theodore Roosevelt National Park has failed to meet its obligations under federal law and follow its own regulations to maintain proper stewardship of its herd of wild horses.

A lawyer for the nonprofit Chasing Horses Wild Horse Advocates argues the National Park Service neglected to notify the public or perform a required environmental analysis before removing horses from the park.

Park officials also have failed to evaluate the impact its birth-control program, which began as an experiment in 2009 involving injecting mares with a contraceptive drug, would have on the herd, the lawyer claimed.

A15-page letter dated March 21 expressing “serious concerns” was sent to Angie Richman, superintendent, and other officials at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Matthew Arnold, a Washington, D.C., lawyer for Chasing Horses Wild Horse Advocates, based in Dickinson, takes issue with the park’s designation of the horse herd, which roams freely within the park’s south unit, as livestock.

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Even if considered livestock, the National Park Service is bound by regulations to notify the public before any horse roundups or removals occur, he said.

“By contrast, if these horses are in fact ‘wild,’ which they are, the TRNP must take certain measures to protect their genetic diversity and may not remove them from the Park without undertaking certain analyses mandated by federal law,” Arnold wrote.

The park’s management of the horse herd, now estimated at 180 head, has not complied with the National Environmental Policy Act, he said in the letter. The park has used a “cursory” 44-year-old environmental analysis as its management document, Arnold added, even though “much has changed since.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials did not respond to written questions submitted by The Forum or to requests for a statement on the allegations raised by the letter.

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Wing photographer Pat Gerlach took this photo of two wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park with a 24-70 mm lens at 59 mm, which he says is within the range of most modern cameras. The horses were walking side-by-side, flared up for this brief encounter, then continued walking. Gerlach said it was taken in the shade, and the background was not distracting.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials announced on March 16 that they have begun to prepare a livestock management plan for the horses and nine head of longhorn cattle kept in the north unit of the park.

Six draft concepts the park is considering range from not making any changes to eliminating both the horse and cattle herds. Written comments from the public will be accepted until April 15, and officials expect to complete the plan later this year or next year.

The park’s designation of the “free-roaming” horses as “livestock” has never been explained. The National Park Service has said the horses depict a historic scene from Theodore Roosevelt’s ranching time in the Badlands during the 1880s.

The wild horses were in the area before the park was established in 1947, Arnold wrote. Roosevelt himself wrote of seeing horses run wild in the Badlands, which he said were ranch strays or Native American ponies that got loose.

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Although the 1978 environmental evaluation of the park horses mentioned “fertility control” as a means of reducing the size of the herd, the report did not “actually evaluate the impact that those fertility control methods would have on the herd,” Arnold wrote.

Responses to Chasing Horses Wild Horse Advocates’ Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that the park wasn’t taking herd censuses before or after removing horses, and its roundups “were not accounting for the horses’ historic significance,” the letter said.

The Organic Act of 1916, which created the National Park Service, includes a “strict preservation mandate” that “broadly prohibits 'taking' or intentionally 'disturbing'" wildlife within a park, Arnold wrote.

Also, National Park Service regulations do not distinguish between native and non-native wildlife species but do allow an exception for livestock animals. “Although NPS has never formally designated the wild horses as ‘livestock,’ the agency manages these animals as livestock," Arnold wrote.

Despite calling the horses livestock, there is no sign the wild horses are “domesticated in any way,” and “they have never been fed, sheltered, or cared for in any way by the Park,” his letter said. Although the horses might be descendants of domesticated animals — park officials sometimes describe them as feral — they are by definition no longer “domesticated or cultivated.”

Unlike at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, the National Park Service maintains a herd of 80 to 100 wild horses managed as wildlife, Arnold wrote.

By classifying the wild horses as livestock instead of wildlife, the park has denied the horses protections under its agency-wide management policies, Arnold said. Even removal of nonnative species — the park considers horses a nonnative species — must be done in a way that ensures their removal is “prudent and feasible,” his letter said, adding that the park has failed to comply.

“The dearth of responsive records indicates that the TRNP’s roundups are, at best, conducted on an ad hoc basis and lack any coherent guiding principle,” Arnold wrote. “For example, the agency’s response indicates that it is not tracking the kinship of the horses under its jurisdiction, or monitoring the herd for potential impediments to their reproductive capacity or their genetic diversity,” such as “risks associated with inbreeding.”

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Five horses run in front of a rock face, their manes and tails flowing behind them.
Blaze and his band are seen galloping in western North Dakota. Volunteers have named each of the horses and have tracked the approximately 20 bands.
Contributed

A study of the park’s horses in 1989 traced the historical lineage of the herd, in part, to horses surrendered by Sitting Bull and his followers at Fort Buford in 1881 and recommended that the park “take care to manage the herd in a way that preserves this historical lineage,” Arnold wrote.

But the park’s adherence to a target population of “approximately 40 horses” under the 44-year-old environmental assessment ignores the park’s duty to ensure that the herd represents horses that “existed in the park during the park’s period of historical significance,” the open-range ranching era of Roosevelt’s time, he wrote.

The park’s decades-old goal of significantly reducing the herd’s size is not consistent with scientific findings for public horse herds outlined in research by the National Academy of Science, Arnold wrote.

A 2013 report found that keeping herd sizes “artificially low” causes wild horse populations to increase at higher rates — leading to additional removals that otherwise might not be necessary, his letter said.

“To any rational observer, wild horses are in fact wildlife and the Park must explain why it continues to treat them differently,” Arnold wrote. “Regardless of their designation, however, the Park must also ensure that horses belonging to the historical lineages observed by Theodore Roosevelt remain in the park.”

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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