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Park officials say they have 'no basis' to keep horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Administrators at Theodore Roosevelt National Park propose gradually removing the 186 wild horses from the park's south unit. Horse supporters maintain they are a major draw to the park.

Horses look down from a rock outcropping.
Wild horses roam Theodore Roosevelt National Park in July 2008.
Patrick Springer / The Forum
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MEDORA, N.D. — National Park Service officials said a legal review revealed that the enabling legislation for Theodore Roosevelt National Park does not allow it to maintain horses the park has kept for decades to memorialize the “historic scene” of the open range ranching era.

Park administrators recently identified the gradual elimination of the 186 horses and 12 longhorn cattle kept in the park as their preliminary preferred alternative for a livestock management plan at the park.

Park officials gave an online presentation the evening of Thursday, Jan. 12, to explain the history of management of the horses and livestock and to answer questions during the public comment period for the scoping process for the livestock management plan.

Angie Richman, superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, said the horses and cattle as livestock species aren’t covered in the park’s enabling legislation as well as the Organic Act of 1916, which requires the National Park Service toconserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein” in national parks.

“The park service has a very limited ability to keep livestock in any park and we don’t have any basis to keep livestock in this park,” Richman said.

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Richman acknowledged, however, that the park’s policy since the 1970s has been to keep them to depict the “historic scene” of open-range ranching during Roosevelt’s time in the Little Missouri Badlands in the 1880s.

Asked what rules or laws would need to be changed, if necessary, to keep horses in the park, Richman said, “It would take a lot,” including amending the park’s enabling legislation and the Organic Act.

Richman’s explanation came from questions, submitted online, asking why park officials don’t consider the horses historically significant. Roosevelt wrote about commonly seeing horses roaming the Badlands, both stray ranch stock and Indian ponies.

Horses, mostly strays or abandoned from area ranches, grazed in the Medora area, even after the creation of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1947, Richman said. Some horses were inadvertently enclosed by a fence in the park’s south unit, built in 1956, around the time bison were reintroduced to the park.

A round-up in 1954 gathered about 125 horses, 90% of which were branded stock, with an estimated 25 horses remaining inside the south unit, Richman said.

The park’s mission is to preserve Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, including preservation of native wildlife species such as bison, bighorn sheep and elk, not his ranching legacy, Richman said.

Park officials couldn’t estimate how long horses would remain in the park under a phased removal process that would involve live captures and allowing mares that have been given birth control to live out their lives in the park.

Expedited removal of the horses and longhorns, another alternative the park is considering, would take two years to accomplish, said Blake McCann, the park’s director of resource management and science.

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The park also is considering a “no action” alternative, which would continue to manage the horses under a 1978 environmental evaluation, which set the goal of maintaining a herd of 35 to 60 horses.

Bureau of Land Management experts and some equine geneticists have said that, in order to ensure a genetically healthy herd, the minimum should be 150 to 200 horses.

The park also keeps a dozen longhorn cattle in the north unit. Like the horses, the cattle can range freely.

Native American tribes would be given the first opportunity to take any removed horses and cattle. Any left would be given to other responsible groups or sold at public auction.

Park officials said they were unable to say how many more bison or elk could graze the south unit if the horses were removed, and could not point to negative effects.

Richman and McCann said, however, that removing the horses and cattle would allow native wildlife and plant species to be more resilient and adaptive, and that conserving native species is in the park’s mission.

Referring to livestock and horses, McCann said, “We know they are out of place in terms of the ecosystem.” He said there is a large body of published research showing that livestock can “cause significant impacts” on native species.

Written public comments during the scoping phase will be accepted until Jan. 31. After park officials consider comments and review their preliminary alternatives, a revised proposal will be released this spring, and another round of public comments will be accepted.

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How to comment

Factual comments, including suggesting alternatives, including supporting documentation, can be submitted.

Until Jan. 31, comments and supporting documentation can be submitted online through the park's Planning, Environment, and Public Comment (PEPC) website at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/LP 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: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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