UPDATE: The National Park Service has extended the public comment deadline to Nov. 24.
The public’s final chance to weigh in on whether the National Park Service should remove North Dakota’s only wild horse herd from Theodore Roosevelt National Park is taking place right now.
The federal Park Service (NPS) is considering management options for the park that include “expedited” or “phased” removals of all of the approximately 200 wild horses from Theodore Roosevelt’s South Unit, as well as a handful of longhorn steers.
Public comments on the draft Environmental Assessment are now due by Nov. 24. For more information on how to send your comments as well as suggestions for what to write, see below.
The possibility of the popular wild horse herd being removed altogether has run into opposition from North Dakota elected officials, including Gov. Doug Burgum. He recently issued the following statement:
“We continue to urge the National Park Service to maintain a herd of wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, just as wild horses roamed those lands during Roosevelt’s transformative years in the Badlands, when President Truman signed the bill creating the park in 1947 and when it received official national park status in 1978.
“These horses are a hugely popular tourist attraction, embodying the untamed spirit of the Badlands while also reminding us of the deep ties to Roosevelt’s ranching and conservation legacy. As we’ve expressed repeatedly to the [Park Service] and Director [Charles] Sams, the state remains ready and willing to collaborate with the Park Service to keep wild horses in the park in a manner and number that supports genetic diversity and protects the park for visitors now and long into the future.”
Burgum also held a press conference on Jan. 30 with tourism officials, state legislators and other stakeholders opposing the removal of the horses and submitted a letter urging the Park Service to maintain a herd of wild horses at the park. The governor later took part in a conference call with Sams and other officials.
In April, state legislators passed a resolution urging the Secretary of the Interior and the director of the NPS to modify its livestock management plan and “continue to allow for interpretative, cultural, and historical purposes a herd of longhorn steers in the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the presence of a wild horse herd in the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”
Livestock management plans for the 70,447 Theodore Roosevelt National Park were developed in the 1970s. They set a population goal of 35-60 wild horses and 12 cattle.
It is important to note, that the term “livestock” was defined as “any species of animal that has been selectively bred by humans for domestic and agricultural purposes, including, but not limited to, cattle, sheep, horses, burros, mules, goats, and swine.”
At one point, the NPS utilized fertility control in the past to slow herd growth at Theodore Roosevelt. The project was not maintained, however.
The NPS’ Frequently Asked Questions page about the herd can be found here.
In December 2022, the Park Service (NPS) announced proposed plans to manage wild horses and cattle within the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As part of the process, the NPS solicited public input on a scoping document as it prepared a new livestock management plan for the park.
At the time that the scoping document was released, there were nine cattle and about 200 horses within the park. Management plans developed in the 1970s determined that an appropriate number of horses was 35-60 and 12 cattle.
Scoping is an early public participation process for determining the scope of issues to be addressed and for identifying the significant issues related to a proposed action.
In September, the NPS released a 97-page Environmental Assessment (EA). An EA is a public document prepared to provide evidence and analysis. It includes a brief discussion of the need for the proposal, alternatives considered, environmental impact of the proposed action and alternatives.
In the EA, the agency has laid out three proposed action alternatives to manage horses and cattle:
No new management actions/continuation of current management with a population objective of 35-60 horses and up to 12 cattle.
Under this alternative, there would be a roundup to reduce the size of the current 200-horse herd followed by helicopter roundups about every four years. It would allow sales of captured horses through a U.S. General Services Administration auction or transfer to authorized entities, including “institutions with an educational mission or other state or federal entities.” This alternative would also allow for contraception on a segment of the horse herd, including the alternative of using surgical sterilization.
The NPS may also periodically introduce horses from outside sources to ensure genetic variation. Cattle numbers would be replenished from outside sources as individual animals perish.
Remove all wild horses “in an expedited fashion,” beginning with an initial helicopter roundup. Once the horses are captured, “federally recognized Tribal Nations with affiliation to the project area would be provided with the first opportunity to receive the horses.”
Opportunities for transfer would then be extended “to other entities such as other federally recognized Tribal Nations, non-federally recognized tribes, tribal corporations or tribal nonprofit entities, or other entities as appropriate.” After tribal requests are fulfilled, remaining livestock would be transferred to other authorized entities (such as institutions with an educational mission or other state or federal entities) or sold in a U.S. General Services Administration auction.
Cattle would also be removed within two years.
Zero-out horses, but in a phased approach over 10 years or longer. As the wild horses are captured, primarily through helicopter roundups, Tribal Nations would be given the first opportunity to receive horses, followed by a government auction (as in Alternative B). “A representative subset of non-reproductive (chemically or surgically contracepted) horses would be returned to the Park to live out their lives.”
Cattle would also be removed within two years.
TAKE ACTION: Submitting Your Public Comment
Return to Freedom submitted scoping comments and will submit EA comments calling for minimally invasive management with an emphasis on proven, safe and effective fertility control.
Below, we have provided some talking points for you to include in your comments—as always, please keep comments respectful and constructive.
- Number of horses: The fewer wild horses removed, the better the outcome for the horses. Bureau of Land Management holding facilities are overcrowded. If the NPS decides that it must reduce numbers, RTF strongly recommends using a robust fertility control program and allowing for natural attrition.
- Fertility control: According to the National Academy of Sciences, the removal of excess horses can lead to a higher growth rate in herds due to decreased competition for forage. Herds can grow 18-25% annually, and this rate can be higher in areas where removals have occurred. Proven, safe and humane fertility control must be implemented from the beginning of a management program instead of waiting, this way it can be used in conjunction with removals to slow herd growth. The NPS previously conducted a fertility control study on the herd. Beginning an actual fertility control program is important.
- Surgical sterilization: RTF strongly opposes the use of surgical sterilization, especially for wild mares. Sterilization techniques are dangerous, painful, and expensive, and invariably lead to litigation that only delays management projects.
- Methods of removal: The NPS says it would remove horses primarily by helicopter roundup. If horses are to be removed, we urge the NPS to implement the use of water and or bait-trapping for the capture of any horses, as well as to use the Bureau of Land Management’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Protocol, a set of humane handling guidelines, when capturing, handling and transporting horses. The NPS has used a low-stress stock handling technique at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and should continue to do so, if the agency removes any wild horses from the range.
- Vulnerability of horses to slaughter: Each transfer of ownership of captured horses increases the possibility they may end up in the foreign slaughter pipeline. Though the NPS is not restricted from selling horses to slaughter (in the way the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service Are in annual government spending bills), the agency can — and should — do well by this beloved herd by working to ensure that any horses removed are placed in safe homes.