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Low donations, high hay prices threaten Nokota horse

A herd of Nokota horses browse on a pasture on the Missouri River near Linton in 2006.

LINTON -- High hay prices caused by a prolonged drought and a sharp drop in donations have combined to threaten breeding herds for the Nokota horse, named the official state equine.

Representatives of the nonprofit Nokota Horse Conservancy said scarce hay supplies mean the herd kept for maintaining the horse's unique bloodlines is threatened.

The Nokota horse, which originated in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is descended from Plains Indian horses, including ponies confiscated from Sitting Bull's band when it surrendered in 1881, and ranch stock.

The conservancy's "quickly dwindling" hay supply could force the dispersal of the herd, now pastured in fields near here, and could mean the loss of valuable breeding stock, said Shelly Hauge, the group's executive director.

"This is one of the most difficult situations we've been in since the formation of the conservancy," which was established in 1999, she said. "While it's never been easy, it hasn't been the struggle it's been this year."

The conservancy owns 118 horses, representing the rarest bloodlines of the breed. Brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz also have private Nokota herds, each with about 175 horses. Combined, the three herds form the breeding nucleus.

Many nonprofits are finding it more difficult to attract significant donations because of the sluggish economy, Hauge said. One big donor recently came through with a contribution, although smaller than normal, she said.

Several factors have combined to make hay scarcer and therefore more expensive, including the prolonged drought.

High corn prices have meant conservation acres have been converted to cropland, leaving less ground to grow hay, said Frank Kuntz, the conservancy's executive vice president.

Hay is running anywhere from $120 to $300 a ton, he said, depending on quality. Those prices do not include transportation costs.

"I go through a ton of hay a day, easy," he said.

The Nokota horse was recognized as the North Dakota honorary state equine in 1993. "The Nokota breed may well be those distinct horses descended from Sioux Chief Sitting Bull's war ponies," the proclamation states. "Some still run wild in Theodore Roosevelt National Park."

Beginning in the 1970s, the Kuntz brothers, working with others, began raising the wild horses from the park.

Park officials systematically removed the mustang-like Nokota horses for decades, however, and it's not clear what remains of the bloodline of the feral horses in the park's south unit, Kuntz said.

The North Dakota Legislature this year passed a resolution urging the National Park Service to work to preserve the Nokota breed.

"Preserving this gene pool is important," Kuntz said. "They're historically important," he added, comparing the horses to Theodore Roosevelt's ranch cabin, which is preserved at the park.

"They survived all these years for a reason," Kuntz said, referring to the Nokotas. "They're tough, hardy, smart horses."