Wild horses took center stage at the Bully Pulpit Rally: Fighting for the Spirit of the Badlands that was held July 12-13 in Medora, North Dakota. Hosted by Chasing Horses Wild Horse Advocates (CHWHA), the two-day event drew multiple stakeholders who collectively supported saving the wild horse herd in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) and offered their assistance to help the National Park Service (NPS) manage this historic herd.
The NPS is creating a new management plan for the wild horses and longhorn cattle in the TRNP. The Park’s preferred action is to gradually remove both the horses and the cattle. Currently, about 190 wild horses and 13 cattle reside on the TRNP.
In past months, three separate resolutions to keep the horses at a healthy and genetically viable number have been passed by the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation - also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, and the Medora City Council.
A Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) on the new management plan is expected to be released in late summer.
A few days before the Rally, Chris Kman, President of CHWHA, took a small group out to view the wild horses in the TRNP. Set against the colorfully striated ridges and buttes of the North Dakota Badlands, the herd was nothing less than magnificent!
Within an hour or so, several bands of horses – lots of red and gray roans – were seen grazing, playing, or meandering along The Loop Road. Ms. Kman identified them as belonging to popular Park stallions Teton, Nicols, Wild Rye, and Trooper.
The highlight of the day, however, was a visit to an area known as “The Flats.” There the group was literally surrounded by wild horses – up to 100 including 3 or 4 babies. These bands were led by stallions Ollie, Jr., Flax, Gunner, Flash, and Maverick, and some had multi-generation families.
While many areas in the West are threatened by drought, forage and water in the TRNP are abundant thanks to heavy snow this winter and spring. Native grasses are plentiful for not only the horses, who were fat and sleek, but also the cattle, bison, prairie dogs, and pronghorn who share the 70,000-acre Park.
Besides their beauty and grace, what’s special about the TRNP horses is how accessible they are to the public. Often wild horses on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or Forest Service lands are difficult to find because they’re elusive or their habitat is so remote. Seeing the TRNP horse is certainly not guaranteed, but the possibility is one of the main reasons why people visit the Park.
LISTENING SESSION WITH PARK OFFICIALS
Although no NPS officials attended Thursday’s Rally, on Wednesday morning, NPS Deputy Director Herbert Frost, TRNP Superintendent Angie Richman, TRNP Chief of Resource Management Blake McCann, and other NPS staff met with a small group of wild horse advocates and interested parties for a “listening session” requested by CHWHA. The latter included Ms. Kman; Mike Lefor, North Dakota House Majority Leader; Ginger Fedak, Senior Campaigner for In Defense of Animals; and Mary Koncel, Special Projects Coordinator for the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC). Eric Gustafson, a staff member for U.S. Senator John Hoeven, also called in. Senator Hoeven has been a steadfast supporter of keeping the horses in the Park.
Director Frost opened the one-hour meeting by stating that he was here to “listen” to the advocates’ perspectives but that no decisions about the management of the TR horses would be made at this time.
Representative LeFor then thanked the NPS for the meeting and its work in the Park. He went on to describe a February meeting he had with other ND leaders, Governor Burgum, and Senator Hoeven, reiterating that the state of North Dakota encourages the agency to keep the wild horse herd in the Park and offering resources to help share the responsibility of managing them.
The conversation turned to the use of GonaCon on the TRNP mares and the future management of the TRNP herd. Ms. Kman presented a petition asking the NPS to discontinue its use of GonaCon, a fertility control vaccination, on the TRNP mares. An AWHC FOIA request revealed that it had caused sterility in at least 19 mares during an almost decade-long research study. In response to Ms. Kman’s questions about the NPS darting all female horses over 8 months old with GonaCon, Dr. McCann issued a correction: the NPS policy is actually targeting mares every two years.
Regarding NPS’s plan to remove the horses, Ms. Kman, Ms. Fedak, and Ms. Koncel stressed that the number of stakeholders who have stepped forward to partner with the TRNP in its management of the herd is unprecedented. Besides both state and federal legislators, multiple wild horse advocate groups, such as CHWHA and AWHC, have stepped forward. Ms. Kman also spoke about the many strengths that other wild horse groups could bring to the table.
While Director Frost listened to these offers, he raised concerns about the “longevity” of the offers, stating any type of commitment needs to extend 50 or more years into the future. That prompted a discussion about creating an endowment and nonprofit foundation to assist the TRNP in managing the horses.
Director Frost ended the meeting by stating that all stakeholders should continue to participate in the NEPA process by submitting comments after the Draft EA is released.
On Wednesday, the movie “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” was shown three times at the Medora Community Center. After the last showing, Director Ashley Avis and cast members did a virtual Q&A about the movie and the wild horse issue.
During Thursday’s Bully Pulpit Rally at the Medora Community Center, the message was resoundingly clear and unified: Let’s work together to keep the wild horses in the TRNP.
About 60 participants, who traveled from as far away as New Jersey, Minnesota, Massachusetts Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Utah, attended the event that lasted the better part of the day. The first half included presentations from wild horse advocates, researchers, ND state legislators, and local community groups. The second half was open to public comments.
Ms. Kman opened the Rally by thanking everyone for attending and speaking out for the TRNP wild horses.
North Dakota Representative Lefor and Senator Dean Rummel described their families’ deep connection to the Park – a connection that extended back multiple generations. Representative Lefor emphasized the North Dakota Legislation’s support for the herd and its unanimous passing of SCR 4014, the ND resolution. Senator Rummel, who frequently photographs the horses, echoed that support.
Joe Wiegand, known as the best living history reprisor of Theodore Roosevelt, entertained Rally participants with stories of President Roosevelt’s time in the North Dakota Badlands as well as his experiences as a “non-horseman” riding horses for different Medora events. He turned serious, though, when discussing the TRNP horses and their importance to President Roosevelt’s legacy.
Terri Theil, Executive Director of the Dickinson Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, provided a personal and professional perspective of the importance of the TRNP wild horses for North Dakota tourism. She described not only riding her horse in the Park and seeing different herds but also the number of visitors who come to the Park each year specifically to see its famous equine residents.
Castle McLaughlin, a former curator at Harvard’s Peabody, gave a virtual presentation on the history and origin of the TRNP horses. This was followed by Frank Kuntz and Christa Ruppert from the Kuntz Nokota Ranch, who presented a slide show about the Nokota horses and the ranch’s ongoing efforts to preserve them. During the TRNP’s previous removals of the horses, Mr. Kuntz and his brother Frank began buying them up in 1986 in order to save the Nokota bloodlines that are descended from the Dakota Sioux’s – and most notably Sitting Bull – horses.
Ms. Koncel spoke about AWHC’s ongoing support of the grassroots advocacy for the TRNP wild horses and noted, once again, that the wide range of support for North Dakota’s only wild horse herd was unprecedented. So far, AWHC has provided funding as well as advice on advocacy and lobbying to Chasing Horses, written extensively about the TRNP wild horses, and put up billboards in the area about the TR horses and the fight to save them. Moving forward, AWHC offered to provide assistance with the management of the herd.
Ms. Koncel also described how a 25-year partnership between the Cape Lookout National Seashore (NPS) in North Carolina and The Shackleford Foundation for Horses could be a model for the management of the TRNP wild horses.
Other wild horse groups included Wild Horses Wild Lands, which is doing a film on the TRNP horses, and North Dakota Badland Horses, which has worked with the Park to help place captured horses into private homes for several years. Both groups reminded the Rally participants that the horses were an important cultural and historic resource.
Ms. Fedak gave an overview of GonaCon, a fertility control treatment that the TRNP and the BLM are using on the herds that they manage herds, as well as evidence that it caused sterility in some TRNP mares. Jen Britton, Drexel University’s Executive Director for Sustainable Development Strategy and wildlife photographer, presented a unique social science and humanities approach to managing wild horses.
Unfortunately, Jessica Jordaan, Mrs. USA 2022 and a wild horse advocate, couldn’t attend, but she sent an inspiring video.
After the presentations, a public comment period began during which about eight participants spoke out about the TRNP horses, and, not surprisingly, the importance of keeping them in the Park.
Ms. Kman concluded the Rally by reminding participants of the need to continue the fight to save the TR horses.