Wild horses facing removal in a North Dakota national park just got another strong ally: Congress

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FILE – Wild horses stand in a group along a hiking trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Oct. 21, 2023, near Medora, N.D. Legislation recently passed by Congress aims to keep wild horses in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, offering welcome support for advocates of the beloved creatures who fear their removal from the rugged landscape would otherwise be imminent. (AP Photo/Jack Dura, File)
BISMARCK, N.D. – Advocates for some 200 wild horses roaming North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park are hoping a signal of support from Congress will prevent the removal of the beloved animals from the rugged landscape.
A National Park Service decision is expected around April as to the horses’ future in the park’s colorful, rolling Badlands. It’s part of an ongoing process to craft a park management plan for “livestock” — a term horse advocates reject.
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Republican Sen. John Hoeven ‘s legislation, tucked in the annual Interior and Environment budget bill that Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed, strongly recommends that the Park Service keep the horses in place. It also signals a potential future action that would deny any funding intended to remove them.
“Now we’ll continue to have a dialogue with them and hopefully get to a good solution,” Hoeven said in an interview with The Associated Press.
A remaining question is how many horses would ensure the long-term preservation of the herd. Advocates want to see a genetically viable herd of at least 150 horses to avoid inbreeding issues. Park Superintendent Angie Richman has said the horses, if they ultimate stay, would still have to be reduced to 35 to 60 animals under a 1978 environmental assessment.
Richman and the National Park Service did not respond to emails for comment on Hoeven’s legislation.
Previously, park officials have said their evaluation of whether the horses should stay is in line with their policies to remove non-native species when they pose a potential risk to resources. The park has proposed removing the horses quickly or gradually or taking no action.
Advocates have feared a predetermined ouster of the horses, whose predecessors were accidentally fenced into the park in the 1950s and were subject to subsequent roundups.
The horses’ origins include Native American tribes, area ranches and domestic stallions introduced to the park from the late 1970s through the 1990s, said Castle McLaughlin, who researched the horses as a graduate student while working for the Park Service in North Dakota in the 1980s.
“They really are sort of living history because they reflect the kinds of horses people in North Dakota, both Native and non-Native, had over the last 150 years,” said McLaughlin, who cheered state leaders’ commitment to preserving the horses and said she is cautiously optimistic but still skeptical the Park Service will “do the right thing here.”
The horses are often seen along the park’s scenic road and hiking trails, thrilling visitors and photographers who happen upon them.
A vast majority of public comments on the decision process has favored keeping the horses.
Chasing Horses Wild Horse Advocates President Chris Kman said she is hopeful the legislation results in the horses staying, but she awaits the park’s decision and wonders what the legislation means for a management plan for the horses.
“I don’t think that any of us will trust, even with an act of Congress, that the park is going to do the right thing and allow a genetically viable herd of horses to stay,” she said. “…Their attitude all along has pretty much been, you know, ‘We can’t keep the horses. We understand the public wants them, but we’re not doing it anyway,’ no matter what the overwhelming response was.

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