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Rangers may opt for 'low stress' horse removals

Medora, N.D.

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Medora, N.D. - Rangers at Theodore Roosevelt National Park might scratch a planned roundup of horses this fall and experiment instead with gradual "low stress" removals of small groups to trim the herd.

A horse roundup had been planned for October to reduce the herd in the South Unit of the park, now estimated at 150, to a target range of 50 to 90.

Periodic roundups are used to control horse and bison populations to conserve vegetation in the park, also grazed by elk and other animals.

"There's plans for a roundup, but not horses," said biologist Mike Oehler, who was a passenger in the helicopter that crashed during last October's roundup. "I've shifted gears to bison in the South Unit."

The bison population in the South Unit is estimated at 375, and officials strive to maintain a buffalo herd of between 200 to 500. About 200 bison roam the North Unit, near Watford City.

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A large horse roundup might be unnecessary, he added, if a new "low stress" handling technique used to move small groups of horses proves successful in a series of removals.

That method was used in May, when 10 horses were led without incident from the Cottonwood Campground, where park officials said they were causing some problems.

Those horses, including two young foals, reportedly were sold at auction in Dickinson for prices ranging from $25 to $175.

Park officials probably wouldn't give notice of horse removals, Oehler said. It has been the practice in the past to issue public notice before park horses are sold at auction in Dickinson.

Horse advocates criticized last year's roundup, saying horse riders trained in moving horses should be used to help corral the animals for sorting to thin the herd. Last year's roundup was unusual, because riders usually are employed.

"Of course I welcome any efforts to round up in a more humane way," said Castle McLaughlin, a researcher of the park horses and advocate for preserving horses descended from Plains Indian ponies. But she criticizes the park for not having a detailed plan for maintaining traits of horses that are historically significant. Park officials say they are managing a demonstration herd, not preserving any particular line of horses.

Bill Whitworth, chief of resources for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, said helicopters remain a safe option for roundups. But the park wants to further test the viability of the "low stress" technique, which used a pair of riders to quietly herd horses.

"It's a little more time consuming that way, but it's less stressful," Whitworth said. "We are always looking for ways to improve things."

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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