After decades of attempted eradication, advocates fear wild horses in western North Dakota face bleak future
As Theodore Roosevelt National Park mulls a new plan for managing the horse herd — that could reduce the number of horses significantly or remove them entirely — advocates urge them to maintain a genetically healthy population.
MEDORA, N.D. — The exotic cats were the star attraction at the Gold Seal Company’s zoo, but few visitors likely suspected that the lions and tigers sometimes were fed meat from wild horses captured at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The horses were considered a pesky invasive species that were inferior to native species, such as the bison and elk that also roam the park.
Having failed to eliminate all of the wild horses from the park when it was created in 1947, park officials for more than three decades carried out a policy bent on removing the herd.
“For decades, they didn’t want the horses,” said Castle McLaughlin, who was hired to research the historical background and management of the park herd. During the 1950s and 1960s, she said, “removed horses were always sold to slaughter.”
Some of those unlucky horses ended up on the menu for exotic cats in the 1960s and early 1970s at the long-defunct Medora Zoo, her research found.
In response to public outcry, the park lifted its policy striving for total removal of the horses in 1970, when it recognized the horses as part of the “historical setting” commemorating the open range ranching of Roosevelt’s time in the Little Missouri Badlands in the 1880s.
Still, “surreptitious” horse shootings by park rangers, usually to eliminate unwanted stallions, continued sporadically until the 1980s, when McLaughlin was conducting her research as a National Park Service employee, she said.
The park abandoned large-scale horse removals in the 2000s following a string of mishaps that included the deaths of horses and the crash of a helicopter used to round up the horses. Instead, rangers now use a contraceptive drug delivered by dart gun to control the population, along with small, “low-stress” horse removals.
Although popular with visitors — the horses are followed by tens of thousands on social media fan pages — they have been shunned or merely tolerated by park administration over the years, in the eyes of horse advocates.
The park has never had a formal management plan for the horses, which are managed under a 1978 environmental assessment that set a goal of maintaining a population of 35 to 60 horses and introducing new bloodlines.
Today, with a herd of about 200, the park is in the early stages of drafting a horse management plan . A slate of options ranges from making no changes to totally eliminating the horses, which roam the south unit, and a demonstration herd of longhorn cattle in the north unit.
The fate of the wild horses, which have long found refuge in the rugged Badlands, now rests on the outcome of the planning process, which park officials hope to complete next year.
Part of the 'historic scene'
Faced with handling several hundred hard-to-catch wild horses, the newly established Theodore Roosevelt National Park turned to readily available experts for help: cowboys.
Starting in the 1950s, the park called upon Medora rodeo cowboy and rancher Tom Tescher and his brothers for help.
Tescher studied the horses’ genealogy and behavior, as well as the territory of each band. He kept written records and could recite a horse’s family history dating back several generations.
Of even greater practical value, he knew how to chase, catch and handle the horses.
As did many ranchers, the Teschers grazed their livestock in the area that became the park until the early 1950s, when the number of wild horses was estimated at 400 to 500.
The presence of “trespass livestock” was common even after the park’s establishment in 1947 and was so flagrant that cowboys often socialized at the former Peaceful Valley Ranch, which served as the park’s original headquarters, according to McLaughlin’s history.
Rangers ran monthly sweeps of the park, checking for brands, and notified ranchers to remove their livestock. A few cases went to court.
In the mid-1960s, a series of roundups reduced the horse herd to an all-time low of 16 horses. A new master plan for the park included a goal of totally eliminating the horses, sparking “tremendous” local opposition, according to McLaughlin.
The park’s decades-long policy of seeking the removal of all horses was reversed in 1970, when Superintendent Art Sullivan determined feral horses were an important part of the “historic scene,” chronicled by Roosevelt himself in his writings about his ranching experiences.
Despite the policy allowing horses in the park, staff carried out a “program of surreptitious elimination of the horses,” Sullivan told McLaughlin, citing an example of a ranger who shot a horse and passed it off as “winter kill.”
In 1974, park officials decided they needed to clarify federal ownership of the remaining horses and invoked North Dakota’s estray law, which allowed the park to assume ownership if no ranchers stepped forward to claim specific horses after public notices were given.
No ranchers stepped forward, and the park assumed ownership of the approximately 40 horses in the park with the intent of managing the horse herd as an “integral part of the wildlife inhabiting the park.”
Horse removals continued, however, and the designation of the wild horses as wildlife would not last long.
The park invited a range specialist from the Bureau of Land Management to evaluate the herd and suitability of the habitat for horses.
“The habitat in Theodore Roosevelt National Park can best be described as excellent for wild horses,” the expert, Milton Frei, wrote in his 1978 report. “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.”
In 1978, the park adopted an environmental assessment that called for maintaining the horse herd at 35 to 60 head, a goal that remains in effect.
That fall, disaster struck during the roundup when seven horses were killed and others were injured, primarily by wire cuts, according to McLaughlin’s history. Eleven horses were sold, nearly all for slaughter, with a filly sold to the zoo for cat food.
After years of concerns about inbreeding among the horse herd, the park in 1981 embraced a major change in management of the horses. It began implementing a program to remove wild stallions and replace them with domestic studs.
In a roundup that year, five stallions were roped; two dying from crushed windpipes while resisting the ropes. Another stallion with a swollen hock was shot. Most of the dominant stallions were removed.
A Medora lawyer, Jay Brovold, expressed skepticism about inbreeding as justification for removing the stallions and harshly criticized what he called the “inhumane circus conducted in the name of a wild horse roundup.” He added, “The entire treatment of these animals has been extremely barbaric, asinine and idiotic.”
The following year, in 1982, a Minnesota man donated an Arabian colt that was placed in corrals with two fillies, which abandoned the colt when they were released after 10 days of shared confinement, a disappointing beginning to the park’s program of introducing fresh bloodlines.
Soon after, the park released another yearling colt, a part-shire, part-paint. The horse became known as the Brookman stud, named after the Montana ranch from which he came. In time, the Brookman stud’s bloodline would become influential.
Other Arabian horses and quarter horses were introduced into the horse herd to add domestic blood that ranchers persuaded park officials would make it easier to sell captured horses.
Tragedy again struck in a roundup in 1986 — events that prompted McLaughlin to explore the history of the park horses — when seven horses died, including a stallion that collapsed and died while being chased by a helicopter.
A mare died from injuries trying to escape from a holding pen at a livestock auction barn in Dickinson. A front-end loader deposited several dying horses behind the sale barn, where they were discovered by park employees and humanely euthanized by a veterinarian.
McLaughlin bought a stallion at the auction, which she turned over to a pair of brothers who had begun buying park horses for preservation.
Linton ranchers Leo and Frank Kuntz, who began buying the horses to ride in the Great American Horse Race circuit, bought more than 50 of the horses, which became the nucleus of a herd to preserve the park horses’ original bloodlines.
Today, Frank Kuntz takes care of about 200 horses, his own and those owned by the nonprofit Nokota Horse Conservancy, to maintain what’s called the Nokota breed, named the state’s honorary equine in 1993.
The Kuntz brothers and others, including McLaughlin, pleaded with park officials not to remove horses that showed characteristics of the former “Indian ponies” and early ranch stock, the forebears of the park's herd.
But the park persisted in its campaign to remove the wild horses, McLauglin wrote in her 1989 history of the park horses, with preference given to descendants of the quarter horses and other domestic horses introduced to the herd.
While working on the history as a National Park Service employee in the late 1980s, McLaughlin learned the surreptitious shooting of certain horses, usually dominant wild stallions, continued. Unlike wild horses on federal lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, the horses in national parks are not protected by federal law.
She learned of a horse that was in the crosshairs and named the stallion Target to put park employees on notice that she was aware of what was going on. As a result, it took the park many years to capture Target, who was purchased by the Kuntz brothers.
“He went on to become one of the dominant stallions and a real force,” McLaughlin said in an interview. “That horse was amazing.”
Today, as a result of the removal of the dominant wild horses and introduction of domestic stock, the park herd is not nearly as wild as it once was, McLaughlin and Frank Kuntz said.
“My feeling strongly from the beginning was that the original horses be the ones in the park,” McLaughlin said, “because they were different from domestic horses and they were very difficult to see. It was a real thrill for visitors to see them, and they had survived, you know, decades of attempts to eradicate.”
'The horses need your voice'
In June, Chris and Gary Kman, joined by Frank Kuntz, drove up to a favorite summer pasture of the horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Lindbo Flats, along the northern edge of the park’s south unit.
Chris Kman spotted a familiar truck, one used by park rangers. “They must be out darting the horses,” she said. Since 2009, the park has been darting mares eight months and older with a birth-control drug.
The Kmans and Kuntz crawled under the park’s boundary fence and walked half a mile to a group of horses standing on and around the base of a sculpted butte, relaxing in sizzling 90-degree heat.
It turned out that two bands were sharing the location, one led by a stallion named Sidekick and the other by a younger stallion named Remington who formed his band a couple years ago.
Because of the park’s ongoing contraception efforts and the continued removal of small numbers of horses, the population of the horse herd is skewing older. By Chris Kman’s count, 26 horses in the park are between the ages of 15 and 24 years old.
“So, the next few years are going to be hard,” she said, anticipating deaths.
The Kmans have become avid horse followers and advocates since moving to Dickinson in 2016, when Chris became a manager at the local Walmart. They began photographing the horses and posting the photos to their Facebook page, Chasing Horses.
In 2019, they opened a Chasing Horses shop in Medora, selling horse memorabilia, and two years later established the nonprofit Chasing Horses Foundation, which advocates for the horses.
Chris Kman has joined Frank Kuntz as an outspoken critic of the park’s management of the horses and what they view as its disregard for preserving the herd’s original bloodlines. They cite horse genetics experts, who say a minimum herd size of 150 is required for a healthy herd.
Because there have not been any removals since the start of the pandemic, Frank Kuntz believes there are signs the herd is rebuilding.
“Now that they’ve been left alone for a couple of years, they’re starting to repair themselves” and keeping bands intact, he said. “They're teaching younger horses.”
The park’s evaluation of six options for a new “livestock” management plan likely will result in a much smaller herd and the possible elimination of the horses, Chris Kman believes. The current use of contraception for all mares eight months and older and removal of horses will result in the herd’s decline over time, she said.
“I don’t see how they’d have anything left,” Chris Kman said. She bristles at the livestock designation, which she and McLaughlin believe would allow the park greater latitude in what they do to the horses.
“They’re not livestock, and they’re not starving to death,” she said, arguing there is enough grass to maintain the herd at its present size, about 200.
There will be two more opportunities for public comment on the new management plan with dates yet to be announced. Besides eliminating the horse herd or leaving it alone, other options include reducing the herd to as few as 15 to 30 non-reproductive horses.
Chris Kman hopes North Dakota residents will make their wishes known. “We need people in North Dakota to get upset about what’s happening,” she said. “The horses need your voice.”
Frank Kuntz welcomes the opportunities for public comment but said input should have been sought much earlier. “They should have had these public hearings for the last 40 years,” he said.
Angie Richman, the park’s superintendent, said the planning process remains in the early stages, so little can be said about what will be recommended.
Unlike bison and elk, the National Park Service does not recognize wild horses as native species in need of protection and must ensure there is adequate grass and other resources to maintain all of the grazing wildlife populations in the park, park officials have said.
Tribes in the area will be consulted for the new management plan, a process that is just starting, Richman said. A new rangeland assessment is also underway.
“We still have a lot of work to do with that,” she said. “We’re still early in the process.”
At two National Park Service locations on the East Coast, Assateague Island National Seashore and Shackleford Banks at Cape Lookout National Seashore, horses are regarded as a cultural resource, and there are efforts to protect important bloodlines, Chris Kman said.
That approach also should be used at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, she said. “The precedent has already been set. You can’t tell me what happens in that national park can’t happen here,” she said of Assateague Island.
As the Kmans and Kuntz were leaving the horses at Lindbo Flats, the group met the departing park rangers, who were carrying a dart gun and had been working behind a butte, out of sight.
“They leave when they see us,” Chris Kman said after the rangers left, adding she believes park employees do not want to be photographed while darting the horses. She and Kuntz wondered how the park tracks which mares have been given the contraceptive drug since they are not marked in any obvious way, suggesting they are not trying to manage bloodlines.
Chris Kman does not blame current park administrators for the practices of their predecessors. “But what did they learn from that?” Given the park’s history of managing the horses, “It doesn’t give you a lot of hope.”