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Forum Editorial: Wild horses must remain a vital part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Park officials are weighing options for managing the horses, including elimination of the herd. That would be a monumental violation of the park's preservation mandate.

Editorial FSA
We are part of The Trust Project.

It’s hard to imagine Theodore Roosevelt National Park without the wild horses roaming along with the bison in the rugged Little Missouri Badlands. They’re an iconic attraction at the park.

The wild horses were a striking part of the landscape when Roosevelt ranched there during the open range era in the 1880s.

“In a great many … indeed, in most … localities there are wild horses being either themselves runaways from some ranch or Indian outfit, or else claiming such for their sires and dams, yet are quite as wild as the antelope on whose domain they have intruded,” Roosevelt wrote in his memoir, “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail.”

But the fate of the horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is uncertain. The National Park Service recently announced that it will draft a new livestock management plan for the horses and longhorn cattle, both maintained as “displays” of the ranching scene in Roosevelt’s time.

Park officials have outlined six draft “concepts” for managing the animals, ranging from not making any changes to eliminating both the horse and livestock herds.

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It’s simply unacceptable for the National Park Service to even consider getting rid of the horses, which are integral to the park experience for visitors from around the country. The horses are a tourism draw for North Dakota.

More importantly, they represent an important part of the historical and natural heritage that Theodore Roosevelt National Park exists to preserve.

In spite of that, the park service has treated the horses as an invasive species that it tolerates as a nod to Roosevelt’s time — somehow classifying the horses as livestock instead of what they are, horses that roam wild within the park, fending for themselves alongside the bison, elk, antelope and other wildlife species.

Unlike the longhorn steers, the park service does nothing to feed, water or otherwise care for these horses, making their classification as livestock ludicrous. We suspect that designation is intended to give the park a way of dodging its legal obligations to protect all wildlife species, native or non-native.

The park should adopt a management plan to preserve the horse herd — and to maintain important bloodlines — by keeping the herd’s numbers large enough to have a healthy breeding population.

There have been concerns for decades that reducing the herd size too much will cause inbreeding problems and detract from the horses’ genetic health. Even so, an environmental assessment in 1978 — still the park’s guiding management document 44 years later — proposed maintaining a population goal of 35 to 60 horses.

That’s much too small to maintain a genetically healthy herd, which equine genetic experts have said would require keeping the horse herd at 120 or more. In fact, the 1978 environmental assessment noted signs of inbreeding and suggested its recommended small herd size is “somewhat arbitrary.”

A range specialist from the Bureau of Land Management, which manages many wild horse herds in the West, wrote in an evaluation that was part of the 1978 assessment that Theodore Roosevelt National Park provides excellent habitat for wild horses.

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“It should be obvious to even an untrained observer that the park could support a much larger population of wild horses without adverse impacts upon the soil or vegetative resources as well as other wildlife species,” the range specialist wrote.

We'll add that it should be obvious that Theodore Roosevelt National Park should keep its wild horse herd, maintained at a size that preserves the important horse ancestry in the park.

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