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Wild horses rounded up at Theodore Roosevelt Nat'l Park

Wild horses from Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit are herded Monday into part of the Wildlife Handling Facility, where they'll be examined. Some will later be auctioned.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK -- A flurry of activity took over a small part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit on Monday.

But it wasn't the crowd of veterinarians and National Park Service employees who made most of the noise -- after all, if they weren't calm and quiet, the horses wouldn't be either.

Over 100 horses whinnied and thumped their hooves against each other and the walls of the facility where they awaited their examinations. For some, it would lead to being auctioned.

As of Monday afternoon, the park had rounded up about 110 horses, half the total population.

The park auctions horses periodically to prevent an overgrown population from overgrazing grass, said Eileen Andes, the park's chief of interpretation.

Depending on the results of the roundup, the park expects to auction 35 to 40 foals, 25 yearlings, 25 two-year-olds and 20 three-year-olds.

A seasoned helicopter pilot and a spotter fly around different parts of the park at a low altitude, herding the horses into a pen that narrows into a smaller area. There, the horses are pushed with a bulldozer-type machine into an even smaller area, their version of a doctor's waiting room.

One by one, the horses enter a hydraulic squeeze chute -- upgraded for this year's roundup -- that holds them still for an examination. One test, of their feces, will be used to determine if veterinarians can test that for pregnancy instead of having to round up the horses, said Jason Bruemmer, a Colorado State University professor who helped with the exams.

Volunteers and officials familiar with the horses identify them by their markings.

Some, like the feisty "Fabio," are better known than others.

As horses are ID'd, their pictures are checked off on a large poster inside the facility.

Mares with any involvement in a contraceptive study will remain in the park, said Bill Whitworth, chief of resource management.

Those that got an experimental contraceptive shot in 2009 will get it again so the park can continue testing its efficacy, Andes said. If the contraceptive works, park officials may use that to control the population, reducing the need for roundups.

Experts also consider the horses' bands when deciding which will stay and which will go.

"We want to maintain the band structure and keep the dominant stallion for each band," Whitworth said.

More diversity means more interbreeding, which promotes genetic diversity, he said. Park officials don't want too few horses of a certain age or gender, either.

The roundup continues today and Wednesday if needed.

The auction will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Wishek Livestock Market.