Horse roundup beginsMEDORA — Monday’s start of a feral horse roundup in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit went smoothly, but some outsiders are concerned with the horse’s heritage. Projected to last through Wednesday, park officials and animal experts will attempt to round up all park horses, totaling about 165 with plans to reduce the herd to about 70 to 75 animals.
By: Lisa Call, The Dickinson Press
MEDORA — Monday’s start of a feral horse roundup in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit went smoothly, but some outsiders are concerned with the horse’s heritage.
Projected to last through Wednesday, park officials and animal experts will attempt to round up all park horses, totaling about 165 with plans to reduce the herd to about 70 to 75 animals.
“We had about half the horses in the park in before lunch time,” said Valerie Naylor, park superintendent. “Our goal is to keep them as calm as possible.”
Horses are culled, or removed, based on age, sex, band and color and amidst a weak horse market, they will be auctioned off at Stockmens Livestock in Dickinson on Friday at 2 p.m.
The last roundup attempted in 2007 ended prematurely when a helicopter crashed, injuring a biologist and the pilot.
Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs, said no horses have died in past roundups.
About 55 people and two helicopters gathered the horses in what officials dubbed a low stress method.
After helicopters rounded up bands and drove them into the wildlife handling facility, horses were given about an hour cool down period prior to moving into a chute system for examination and separation.
All mares, older than 2-years-old, will be sent back into the park after having blood drawn, a pregnancy test, a photograph and microchip inserted.
The roundup will potentially provide park officials with a secondary means of population control.
As part of a 3-year-long research project, 24 mares will be given an experimental contraceptive vaccine known as GonaCon.
“Right now we are leaving quite a few breeding mares in the park so we can do the research project,” Naylor said.
To control any behavioral effects the vaccine may cause, “Harem stud” adult males will rejoin their mares.
While the park considers the horses a “historical demonstration,” others think differently.
“Our biggest issue is what they’ve been doing to the breed out here,” said Frank Kuntz, executive vice president of the Nokota Horse Conservancy, a non-profit group aimed at “preserving the unique and historical Nokota Horse.”
Kuntz said in the early 1980s, park staff’s attention was directed at the idea the horses were descendants of Sitting Bull’s horses.
Yet, over the years, the park has introduced several domesticated horse species, Kuntz said.
“No matter what the bloodline was, don’t mess it up,” Kuntz said, adding previous park officials were aware of the horse’s background.
“If you are going to be saving a breed of horses in a national park that are supposed to be representative of Theodore Roosevelt’s time frame, you think the logical thing for them to do would be to preserve that type of horse,” Kuntz said.
Park officials were not able to tell Kuntz which mares would be targeted for the contraception research project, he said.
Kuntz feels after this roundup’s culling and contraception combination, it might be too late to save the park’s Nokota line.
“They are culling 11 of them that we classify as Nokota’s,” Kuntz said.
Castle McLaughlin, associate Curator of Native American Ethnography at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, conducted an extensive study on the horse’s background and her findings were ignored, Kuntz said.
Naylor said while the park has no intention of getting rid of all the horses in the park, their historical evidence is lacking.
“We don’t have any evidence that these horses are direct descendants of horses that belonged to Sitting Bull,” Naylor said. “We’ve read all of the original sources. We’ve read the work of Castle McLaughlin and the others who have done historic studies and there is just nothing to point to that.”
Naylor said the horses are primarily descendants of escaped or wild ranch horses released prior to the park being fenced in the 1930s.
“Their job is to preserve living, natural things in these parks,” said Leo Kuntz, president of the Nokota Horse Conservancy. “It’s probably the best documented strain of feral horses there is.”
“It’s a slap in the face to the whole country what they’re doing,” Frank Kuntz said.