Feds at Meeting: National Park on Track to Remove North Dakota’s Only Wild Horse Herd

By Mary Koncel, AWHC Program Specialist

(Jan 13, 2023) On Thursday, January 12th, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) held a virtual public scoping meeting on its proposed Livestock Management Plan. And the message was clear: There is no place for wild horses in the Park that was named after America’s Conservation President.

About 160 participants attended the one-hour presentation that covered a history of livestock in the Park, a review of the three proposed alternatives for the management plan, and a lengthy question-and-answer period.

Panelists included Angie Richman, Superintendent at the TRNP; Blake McCann, Director of Resource Management and Science at TRNP; Maureen McGee-Ballinger, Deputy Superintendent at the TRNP; and Christine Gabriel, Regional Environmental Coordinator.

Currently, 186 horses and 12 longhorn cattle reside in two units of the 70,000-acres Park. The three alternatives on the table are maintaining the 1978 Environmental Assessment and 1970 Management Plan that would allow 35-60 horses and up to 12 cattle: an expedited elimination of all the horses and cattle; and a phased elimination of all the horses and cattle.

Throughout the meeting but especially during the Q and A, the panel clearly reiterated the TRNP’s position that wild horses don’t belong in the Park because they are defined as nonnative livestock instead of native wildlife – with alignment or not in alignment being a major theme.

Mr. McCann began by stating that natural history records and genetic studies of wild horses demonstrate that they come from domestic stock and therefore in alignment with the TRNP’s definition of livestock.

(Never mind that current DNA and mitochondrial evidence support that wild horses are a reintroduced native species and that the TRNP has not shown how or why it classifies the horses as livestock rather than wildlife.)

Ms. McGee-Ballinger followed up by emphasizing that a review of previous “park enabling legislation doesn’t address livestock and there’s no law or requirement that allows livestock to occur at the TRNP.”  Therefore, maintaining the horses is not in alignment with policy, law, or code of federal regulations.

(Never mind that other national parks – Assateague Island in Maryland and Shackleford Banks in North Carolina – maintain healthy wild horse herds.  In fact, the National Park Service calls the Assateague herd a “cultural resource,” and the Shackleford herd is protected after enabling federal legislation for the Cape Lookout National Seashore was amended – a move that could also save the TR wild horses.)

Ms. Richman wrapped up the alignment discussion by stating that although the horses were classified as a historic demonstration herd since the 1970s, park legislation and the Organic Act of 1916 show that there is no “clear basis to support livestock.”  She added that TRNP’s charge is to memorialize Mr. Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, not his ranching legacy and that the goal of the management plan was “realignment back to our native wildlife and native prairie ecosystems.”

(Never mind that wild horses have roamed the Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park since before its creation,  and Mr. Roosevelt frequently and eloquently wrote about their beauty, history, and resilience.)

Unfortunately, there was no discussion on how keeping wild horses in the TRNP is aligned with the will of North Dakota residents and businesses, or, for that matter, the will of the American people.

TRNP responses to some of the participants’ questions include the following:

*What is the fate of removed horses?  The TRNP would offer tribes the first opportunity to take the horses with nonprofit organizations next in line. The remaining horses would be sold on the GSA auction site. The TRNP said it would work to find good homes for all the removed horses, but it could not guarantee their outcome once they leave the Park.  The estimated number of horses to be removed is at least 140.

*How will the removal of the horses impact tourism at the TRNP and local businesses?  The TRNP did not acknowledge that viewing wild horses is the main reason why visitors come to the Park and surrounding towns.  Instead, it emphasized the other attractions in the TRNP, including the Little Missouri River, native wildlife such as bison and bighorn sheep, and diverse habitats and landscapes.  Also, TRNP said the Environment Assessment will examine economic impacts.

*Is there any data on how wild horses have a detrimental effect on other wildlife in the TRNP?  According to TRNP, there’s a large body of evidence in published literature demonstrating that livestock in native ecosystems causes significant harm. However, it provided no information specific to the TRNP.  Also, it stated that the removal of the livestock is necessary to provide more forage for native wildlife and allow for their adaptability and resilience, especially in light of climate change.

*Could the horses be moved from the South Unit, where they currently live, to the North Unit of the TRNP?  No.  According to the TRNP, it would be pointless to move the livestock because it wouldn’t be dealing with the planning and the code of federal regulation that the Park is required to follow.

A transcript of Thursday’s meeting will be available at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/LP

The deadline for the Scoping Notice comments is January 31st.  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 sent to:

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
P.O. Box 7
Medora, N.D., 58645

You can also take action here.