North Dakota officials plead with Theodore Roosevelt National Park to keep wild horses

Gov. Doug Burgum asked park officials to work in collaboration with the state to find a solution that would allow the horses to stay while protecting the park's ecosystem.

A photograph of the wild horses roaming on Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. Photos courtesy of Deb Lee Carson.
A photograph of the wild horses roaming on Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.
Contributed / Deb Lee Carson

BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum, the state’s tourism director and legislative leaders are pleading with Theodore Roosevelt National Park to work with the state to find a way to keep the park’s popular wild horse herd.

The request, made during a press conference on Monday, Jan. 30, came on the eve of the expiration of the public comment period seeking input to the park’s management plan for the horses.

The park announced its preferred option is to gradually eliminate the herd of 186 horses, which the governor and others noted roamed the park since before it was created in 1947.

Burgum said fewer than 200 horses are free roaming in the park’s 46,158-acre south unit, an area equivalent to 72 square miles.

“We’re talking about 200 horses in this massive south unit,” the governor said. He asked park officials to work with the state to strike a management plan balancing the size of the horse herd that protects the park's environment.


“For decades and decades, these horses have existed peacefully in the park,” serving as an “indelible symbol of the untamed badlands,” Burgum said.

Eliminating the horses would strike a blow not only to park visitation but also to the economy of Medora, the gateway community to the park’s south unit, and the surrounding area, he said.

Burgum noted that the Bureau of Land Management manages more than 82,000 wild horses on western federal lands. “We know that’s a problem,” he said.

“We believe there are options other than eliminating this small herd,” Burgum added. “We stand ready to collaborate.”

Burgum noted the state has range scientists and other experts who are ready to help the park research a solution, saying the park is “grossly underfunded and understaffed” relative to its mission.

The governor also noted that Roosevelt himself wrote about commonly seeing wild horses in the Little Missouri Badlands during his ranching days in the open range era of the 1880s near Medora.

“They have been part of the landscape of western North Dakota since he famously arrived here,” Burgum said.

Park officials have said their mission is to honor Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, not his ranching legacy. “But we can’t and we shouldn’t separate those two,” Burgum said, adding Roosevelt said conservation and development go together.


“Ranching is development and ranching is conservation,” the governor said. Favoring one over the other “is a disservice to his (Roosevelt's) legacy."

Although not present at the press conference, Burgum thanked Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both Republicans from North Dakota, for their willingness to work with the National Park Service on a solution for keeping the horses and longhorns in the park.

Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota’s tourism director, said the horses are a major tourist attraction.

“This is one of the very few national parks that does have wild horses,” she said. “That sets it apart,” and the horses frequently appear on lists of “must-see” attractions. The horses are photogenic, Otte Coleman said.

On the podium nearby, a television screen flashed rotating images of the park horses.

Last year, there were more than 770,000 trips to the park, more than half of them from non-residents, Otte Coleman said. Billings County, which includes Medora, generated $16 million from tourism spending, she said.

Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, the House majority leader, noted many western North Dakota legislators were among the sponsors of a resolution urging the park to keep the horses and longhorn cattle.

“We live in that area,” he said. “We know the importance of what’s going on here.”


Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, said the horses and longhorns have massive support. “This is as grassroots as you can get in North Dakota,” he said.

Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, the House minority leader, said he received “hundreds of emails” from people in support of the horses, each with a story about seeing the herd in the park and what the horses mean to them.

Boschee asked the park for an extension of the public comment period but was denied.

Burgum, who sent a letter to Angie Richman , the superintendent of the park, asking to collaborate on a plan to keep the horses, urged people to submit official comments to the park by the deadline.

Richman, who was out of the office Monday, was not immediately available for comment.

How to comment

Until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, comments and supporting documentation can be submitted online through the park's Planning, Environment, and Public Comment website at or by writing to: Superintendent, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, P.O. Box 7, Medora, N.D., 58645

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address:
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