Zaleski: The horses are our heritage
The wild horses who call Theodore Roosevelt National Park home "are living reminders of the native and cowboy cultures of the wild Dakota Territory that challenged Teddy Roosevelt," columnist Jack Zaleski writes.
The National Park Service proposal to remove wild horses from western North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park is absurd. The park service claims it can find no basis to retain the herd of fewer than 200 horses, yet can offer no convincing reasons to remove them. Could be the park service is not looking in the right places for its “basis.” Indeed, given the history of the horses in the park (and prior to the establishment of the park), there are compelling reasons to maintain the several bands of family groups that comprise the overall herd.
Park service managers seem perversely proud of denigrating the wild horses as “livestock,” as if they were range cattle being fattened for market. They justify the classification because the horses are not indigenous to the Badlands, as are bison, elk and deer. But the horses pre-date the 1947 park by more than 60 years, having been released into the wild by ranchers, native Americans and the U.S. Army. Ironically, bison and elk had to be reintroduced into the park; and in the case of the bison, are “managed” like livestock, including genetic selection, winter feeding and culling their numbers when necessary.
Like the other wild grazing animals in the park, the wild horses have proven to be supremely adapted to the harsh environment. They have thrived — reproduced, lived and died — in the park’s wildlands so that they are, in effect, indigenous by the park service’s definition as it is applied to management of bison and elk.
Importantly (but apparently not important to the park service), the horses roaming the park are powerful symbols of the region’s history and heritage. The ancestries of some of the horses can be traced to American Indian ponies once owned by Sitting Bull, which suggests they might be descendants of horses that carried warriors into the fight against George Custer’s doomed troops in the 1876 Battle of the Little BigHorn. Others likely trace their lineage to cavalry mounts and the ranch horses of the open range era. They are living reminders of the native and cowboy cultures of the wild Dakota Territory that challenged Teddy Roosevelt. They embody the ranching heritage of North Dakota’s West River Country.
The horses attract visitors. They are followed online by people who know the alpha stallions and their mares. It’s a national park, and its purpose is to afford visitors access to a magnificent landscape and fascinating wild animals. The horses are integral to that mandate. The park’s miles of paved loop roads allow visitors a unique up-close experience with the horses. They have become a must-see priority.
The proposal to remove the horses is generating a firestorm of protest. It is a bad idea. Surely the bright folks who manage the park can devise a creative strategy that enhances grazing capacity and retains the horses.
The public comment period ends Jan. 31. Website is parkplanning.nps.gov/LP . By mail, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Box 7, Medora, ND 58645.
Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is the author of a new history of Forum Communications Company . Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.