Lawmakers urge to keep wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; loss would be a 'tragedy'
North Dakota officials, business groups, are speaking out in support of keeping the wild horse herd, a major tourist attraction to the western part of the state.
BISMARCK — Backers of the wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are rounding up support from state legislators and other officials as they make their case for keeping the herd.
Legislators have introduced a resolution urging the national park to keep the wild horses , which were fenced in when a perimeter fence was built in the 1950s. The park now classifies the horses as livestock and wants to remove what people in Medora and surrounding areas say is a major tourist draw.
Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, the House majority leader, is a leading proponent of keeping the horses in the park and backs the legislative resolution.
“I’ll strongly advocate for that, as I’m sure my fellow legislators will as well,” Lefor said in a “coffee with legislators” meeting in Dickinson on Saturday, Jan. 21.
At an earlier meeting with constituents on Jan. 14, Rep. Dean Rummel, R-Dickinson, said he spoke with Gov. Doug Burgum’s chief of staff, and was told the governor will be issuing a statement in support of the horses.
“This would be a tragedy to lose something that draws a lot of tourists to the state,” he said, adding that many visitors come to photograph the horses.
At that meeting, Attorney General Drew Wrigley expressed frustration with the park’s proposal to remove the horses.
“None of us can remember a time when there weren’t these beautiful horses there,” he said. “Are we managing it for the managers, or are we managing it for the people.”
The state often has to fight back against federal “encroachment,” Wrigley said. “What’s this resource for?” he asked. “What’s it all about? Yes, it’s a national park, but it’s under the stewardship of people here in North Dakota who know the park well and understand the parameters of that care.”
Meanwhile, legislators won’t be given additional time to provide input to the park, which is closing its current public comment period on Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Park Superintendent Angie Richman has denied a request by Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, the House minority leader, for a 60-day extension.
Boschee said the wild horses are “enduring symbols of the rugged North Dakota Badlands” that attract “hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park each year, and represent a significant economic driver for small businesses in the western portion of our state.”
The park has itself recognized the importance of the horses in its own “Park Foundation Document," which defines “the park’s purpose, significance, fundamental resources and values,” Boschee wrote in his Jan. 19 letter to Richman.
The document “forthrightly recognizes” that the wild horses “were an important part of the cultural landscape when Theodore Roosevelt lived in the area and they are a very popular visitor attraction today.”
For more than 40 years, the park has managed the wild horses under a 1978 environmental assessment prescribing a herd size of “approximately 40 individuals.”
In March of 2022, when the park announced it was drafting a “livestock management plan,” gradual elimination of the herd — the option the park now prefers — was only one of six possible alternatives, Boschee noted.
The proposed management plan calling for removal of the horses, which now number 186, “represents a fundamental transformation” of the park, “one that will send shock waves through the local economy,” Boschee wrote.
The comment period, announced on Dec. 12, fell in the midst of the holiday season, when the Legislature was in recess and many people were busy, impeding their ability to present comments, he added.
North Dakota legislators are considering the implications of the park’s proposed plan for the horses, and intend to introduce a resolution in response “that will outline the gravity of the effects on the state,” Boschee wrote.
In her reply in a letter dated Tuesday, Jan. 24, Richman wrote that when what was established as Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in 1947 became a national park in 1978, “the presence of livestock on the landscape came into conflict” with National Park Service policy “in terms of natural systems management.”
The park’s classification of the horses as livestock is recent. For decades, the park has described them as “wild horses” or “feral horses.” As recently as Aug. 23, 2022, in a document called the “superintendent’s compendium ,” Richman referred to “bison, elk, and feral horses” and “any other wildlife,” in a warning to avoid disturbing wildlife in the park.
In her letter to Boschee, Richman wrote that many of the park’s guiding documents, namely the park’s resource management plans “state these animals (the horses) are not a part of the natural ecosystem,” their impacts should be studied, “and they were not appropriate to the park scene.
“Park management has been grappling with this issue ever since and the Livestock Plan re-evaluates livestock in the park against current law and policy.”
The park’s plan for the horses and 12 Texas longhorn cattle is currently under its second public-comment period, with a third opportunity coming later this year, Richman wrote. "With this in mind, we will not extend the comment period at this time.”
Members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation have not come out in support of keeping the horses in the park. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., said he supports the park’s plan to remove the horses.
Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both Republicans, have urged their constituents to make their views known to the park, and Cramer has linked to the park’s public comment page on his website.
In an appearance on The Jay Thomas Show on WDAY AM radio, Cramer noted the park does not consider the wild horses to be a native species. “While they may not be indigenous, they are nonetheless culturally significant because they have been there, whether it’s 20 years, 30 years or so now, they’ve been part of the ecosystem, if you will, the culture.”
Wild horses were roaming the area including the park when Roosevelt ranched in the Little Missouri Badlands in the 1880s, and many believe they have been there ever since.
The Medora Chamber of Commerce is drafting a statement urging the park to keep horses.
“We would like to have them keep the horses in the park,” said Clarence Sitter, president of the chamber’s board. “We believe it has a significant impact on tourism, which contributes to all the local businesses. It’s part of the magic of what makes Theodore Roosevelt National Park a great place to visit.”
The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, which operates the Medora Musical and many other attractions in Medora, also will urge the park to keep the horses, according to Kaelee Wallace, the foundation’s marketing manager.
“We do know the importance the horses have on visitors in Medora,” she said. “The bison and the horses are the two most talked-about items when it comes to the park,” Wallace added. “We believe the horses draw people not only to the park, but to the Medora area.”