The wild beauty of the Little Missouri badlands within Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. Photo George Wuerthner 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) has proposed eliminating feral horses and domestic livestock from the Park. Unlike the fiasco at Point Reyes National Seashore, where the NPS appears to support maintaining domestic livestock within the park unit, the staff at TRNP recommends reducing the number of domestic animals to zero. Management of feral horses and domestic cattle across the West has been contentious for decades.

TRNP has a small herd of domestic cattle which it plans to eliminate. Photo George Wuerthner

Opposition to the proposal comes from the Governor Burgum of North Dakota, the state legislature, and the United Tribes of North Dakota. Burgum, speaking on behalf of the hospitality industry, suggests that horses and cattle are a draw for tourists and are part of the ranching “heritage” of the state.

The state legislature is also considering a resolution that would oppose the removal of livestock from the Park. But, of course, this would only be advisory since federal authority trumps state laws.

The United Tribes of North Dakota consider feral horses as “sacred” and oppose their removal from TRNP. Photo George Wuerthner

The tribes, for their part, argue that horses are “sacred” and part of their cultural heritage.

New genetic testing demonstrates that the horses in TRNP underwent genetic bottlenecks and founder effects, but are related to the domestic horses of Europe and Asia, which supports the historical evidence they are the result of European introduction.

Although the Park described the horses for decades as “wild horses” or “feral horses,” park officials recently classified them as livestock and maintain they have “no basis” to keep livestock in the Park under laws and regulations.

Park officials, including Angie Richman, the park superintendent, have said the Park’s enabling legislation and other federal laws don’t allow them to keep livestock in the Park. The Park’s mission, Richman has said, is to preserve native species and ecosystems.


 TRNP’s mission is to manage for prevation of natural values and biodivesity. Tiger swallowtail on thistle Theodore Roosevelt NP ND.  Photo George Wuerthner

The cattle management within the Park relies on a 1970s plan, while the feral horse plan was adopted in 1978. The 1978 plan called for 35-60 horses. Today there are more than 200, well above the original plan.

The Park has tried to limit the number of horses through periodic roundups and even birth control. But the horses, say the NPS,  are “efficient breeders.”

The NPS says that based on new science, and ecological insights, the removal of horses and domestic cattle should be the priority of park management.

A new cattle borne disease poses a risk to the park bison herd. Photo George Wuerthner 

A further issue is that TRNP is home to bison, and in 2022 a bacterial disease of cattle, Mycoplasma bovis, was discovered in the Park. Mycoplasma bovis poses a threat to the Park’s bison.

Three preliminary alternatives are under consideration by the NPS. Alternative A (No Action Alternative: continued herd management under the 1978 EA and 1970 Management Plan), Alternative B (Action Alternative: expedited reduction of herds to no livestock), and Alternative C (Proposed Action Alternative: phased reduction of herds to no livestock).

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

The expedited alternative would eliminate all horses and cattle within two years. Part of the reason for the quick removal of livestock is the risk of disease transfer they pose to the park’s bison herds.

However, since releasing a plan draft, feral horse and cattle advocates have rallied to flood the NPS with letters denouncing the move.


Teddy Roosvelt cabin Theodore Roosevelt NP ND. Photo George Wuerthner

Theodore Roosevelt first came to ranch among the beautiful badlands along the Little Missouri River in  North Dakota in 1884 after his mother died from typhoid fever and within hours his wife, Alice, also died from kidney disease.

Roosevelt was distraught; some say, he went west seeking solace over the loss of his family.

Prairie flowers in Theordore Roosevelt National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

He established two ranches—the Maltese Cross Ranch near Medora and the Elkhorn some 35 miles north of Medora. After the devastating winter of 1886-87 that killed tens of thousands of cattle on the northern plains, Roosevelt decided to get out of the ranching business and focus on politics. He sold his last interests in the Elkhorn Ranch in 1898.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was first proposed in 1919 shortly after TR died to honor the former President. However, it went nowhere until Franklin Roosevelt proposed in 1942 to add the area to the national park system.

In 1945 North Dakota Congressman William Lemke introduced a bill for a Little Missouri Badlands. But, unfortunately, it failed to get President Truman’s signature. So Lemke tried again in 1947 and got a Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park managed mainly as a historical site.

Feral horses were present when the memorial Park was established in 1947.

The NPS mission is to preserve the natural environment. Little Missouri River, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND. Photo George Wuerthner 

In 1978, the area was upgraded to full national park status, and the NPS began to manage the site more for its natural values. The presence of exotic feral horses has never met the overriding principle of managing native species.


National Park Historian Robert Utley suggested that the horses have historical value and may be descendants of horses once bred by Sitting Bull and other native people.

A feral horse grazes in the Pryor Mountains of Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

Of course, all horses are descendants of domestic livestock, whether ridden by Roosevelt or Sitting Bull.

Feral horses are found on other national park units, such as Assateague Island National Seashore. And domestic cattle and horses are currently the subject of a controversial plan to maintain private farms within Point Reyes National Park. In addition, there are about 300,000 feral horses on the Bureau of Land Management and National Forest lands and state, private and tribal lands across the West.

Many scientists believe feral horses pose a threat to native ecosystem, plants and wildlife. However, feral horse advocates believe that domestic livestock pose a greater threat to the West’s ecosystems.

However, the national park service has a different mandate than these other federal land management agencies. As noted by the TRNP Superintendent, the Park Service’s mission is to preserve native species and ecosystems.


The cultural appropriation of the horse by Native Americans provided greater mobility, leading to more warfare, and the adoption of the bison hunting culture of the Great Plains. Photo George Wuerthner 

Horses are not native to North America and were introduced by the Spanish in 1519. Cultural appropriation by the tribes began in the 1600s. Horses reached tribes in the northern plains by 1750-1780, setting the era of mobile bison hunting tradition in motion. The adoption of the horse by Native Americans had both positive and negative influences for them. It also had severe consequences for bison herds, and tribal hunting for the hide trade may have contributed to the demise of the once vast bison herds.

Map showing the movement of horses northward from the Southwest, reaching the area around TRNP about 1750. 

This debate gets to the heart of the matter. Do we need to “preserve” domestic animals in our national parks?

Approximately 300,000 feral horses roam the West, do we need to have them in our national parks as well? Photo George Wuerthner 

Given that there are hundreds of thousands of feral horses, not to mention about 95 million domestic cattle in the United States, there is no need to keep either cattle or horses in any national park unit.

Kids view on prairie dog town Theodore Roosevelt NP ND. The NPS goal is to preserve native wildlife like bison and prairie dogs. Photo George Wuerthner 

I commend Superintendent Richman and the TRNP staff for having the courage to recommend removal of domestic animals from the park.

However, with the pressure exerted on the TRNP from North Dakota politicians, wild horse advocates, and the United Tribes of North Dakota who suggest feral horses are “sacred” animals,  I suspect the NPS will bow to the political influence.

TRNP livestock management plan will be open for public comment later this spring and summer when it comes out with a finalized proposal.




About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

57 Responses to Theodore Roosevelt National Park Proposal To Remove Domestic Cattle and Feral Horses Runs Into Opposition

  1. Jerry L Thiessen says:

    I am far from a feral horse advocate, but let’s be candid, horses evolved in North America and were part of the great diversity of large mammals when modern man strode upright into the New World and wreaked havoc on them some 14,000 years ago. Seventy percent of large mammals extant at the time became extinct including several species of horse. Most, it is believed, at the hand of man. It is true that Spaniards reintroduced horses to North America in the 1600’s, but horses were present for at least 500,000 years before man eliminated them. The Wild Horse and Burro Act is a serious farce and obstacle to good public land management and should be repealed.

  2. Jeff Hoffman says:

    I love George’s work and it’s usually spot on. But as Jerry points out above, horses evolved in North America, despite George’s claim to the contrary.

    It is not known, as far as I can discover, whether horses were native to the ecosystem in question here. It was previously thought that the only horses that were native here were small ones, but the remains of a large horse was recently found. So calling horses “exotic” has no basis.

    George also makes the point that all feral horses in the U.S. are descendants of domestic horses. This of course is true, because the humans who came across the land bridge killed all the native horses, so the feral ones in North America descended from domestic ones brought here by Europeans. But so what? The California condors that now exist in the wild were bred in zoos. Wolves bred in captivity are released into the wild in order to reintroduce them. Etc. If horses were native to an ecosystem, it doesn’t matter whether they descended from wild or domesticated horses; they’re a natural part of the ecosystem, and that’s all that matters.

    Finally, there’s a huge difference between horses and cattle. Horses are naturally evolved animals, but cattle were bred into existence by humans. Therefore, cattle are not native to anywhere and do great harm wherever they are. Horses on the other hand may be native, and where they are, they fit right in with the ecosystem and don’t do any harm.

    • Ted Chu says:

      If it was actually humans that killed all the horses in the Americas why didn’t they kill all the horses where they came from first? The horses that are here now are not the same animal as the original American horse or the original American lion, camel or cheetah, etc. Per head horses are harder on the land than cattle for several reasons. They have both upper and lower teeth so can graze closer to the ground. They have less efficient digestive systems so need more pounds of forage per pound of horse than cattle do. Lastly under current management horses are out there eating away 24-7-365 whereas most managed livestock are taken off the range for parts of the year. If a truly native American horse is found hiding in some remote canyon I will support them being listed under the ESA. Condors have not been domesticated and captive bred wolves have not been used to re-introduce wolves in N. America. To be clear I want ALL livestock, both managed and feral, to be eliminated or at least greatly reduced on our fragile arid public lands in favor of native species and ecosystem health and recovery.

      • Jeff Hoffman says:

        OK, we agree on cattle, though I won’t compromise. I want all cattle off all public lands, no exceptions. Eventually, I want all cattle removed from the planet. These unnatural animals are nothing but a scourge, and the ecological destruction caused by their grazing alone is right up there with destruction from awful things like logging and mining. Now for horses.

        Full disclosure, I AM biased on this issue because I’ve had horses and I love them dearly. But that said, the Earth and its native ecosystems, habitats, and wildlife should always come first. Now I’ll address your comments.

        “If it was actually humans that killed all the horses in the Americas why didn’t they kill all the horses where they came from first?” Humans kill everything when they move to new areas. Humans didn’t cause native wildlife to become extinct when we were confined to Africa, but once humans started leaving 60-90,000 years ago, they caused extinctions wherever they went. Same with the humans who came across the land bridge. Furthermore, horses evolved here, not in Asia, and walked across the land bridge in the opposite direction that humans did. Ultimately, you’re saying that you don’t acknowledge that humans who came to North America across the land bridge caused horses to become extinct. That only leaves coincidence as the reason that they and other animals became extinct when humans arrived, and that’s ridiculous.

        “The horses that are here now are not the same animal as the original American horse …” The remains of a large horse, the same species as modern horses, was recently found, I believe in the Yukon (read this weeks ago, don’t remember). Those remains predate humans here. Scientists are still learning about which horse species existed when humans got here and where they lived. It wasn’t that long ago that they thought that horses evolved in the Steppes in Russia, only to later learn that they evolved in North America.

        “Per head horses are harder on the land than cattle …” Irrelevant. If they were native, who cares? The only issues are whether they’re native to an ecosystem and, if so, are their native predators still present and, if not, can we take substitute other native predators or do we have to manage their populations by culling them.

        “Condors have not been domesticated and captive bred wolves have not been used to re-introduce wolves in N. America.” Don’t know exactly what you mean by this. The condors released in California came from the San Diego Zoo’s breeding program, where they captured the last wild condors, bred them in zoos, and released them into their native habitats. I’ve seen videos of people raising wolves in captivity for release into the wild. Either I’m misinterpreting what you mean or you’re dead wrong.

        • Ida Lupine says:

          Whose gonna eat all that non-native ‘cheat’ grass if not for the horses? I understand they do, and that’ll help prevent fires? All of these human mistakes would be comical if they didn’t have such tragic consequences.

          I do remember reading about the horse in the Yukon.

      • Alison James says:

        Ted, please read the 1971 Wild Horse Act and as reintroduced species would be Bison, elk and pronghorn even the Big Sheep Sheep from CA are reintroduced species from Canada.

    • PJ Jackson says:

      Jeff, you are making many good points here. Just one correction: there is no evidence of the native horses being killed off by early humans.
      The current thinking is considering
      climactic changes as at least partly responsible for the disappearance of the horses, as well as other notable creatures, from the North American continent. And current fossil evidence isn’t sufficient to determine when horses disappeared… We will all have to stay tuned for more fossil discoveries, more data, more hypothesizing to see the mystery unfold. It is all entwined with early human history, and we hope for more fossil evidence on that too! this is the exciting part!

  3. William A Boyd says:

    Those arguing against the new management plan are tacitly arguing against the original mandate of the National Parks. If they wish for anyone to assess their position, the opposers might sharpen their expressed reasons by examining the arguments underpinning the mandate.

  4. Barry Reiswig says:

    I visit the park annually. Horses should stay because of historical significance to area and because I like them. I think we should remove the NPS from the park. Give the park to ND park service

  5. Jim Hammett says:

    “Horses don’t do any harm..” Hardly! Anyone that has spent any time at all on BLM land “managed” for designated wild horse herds would beg to disagree. Yes, 10,000 years ago horses were part of the environment…along with dire wolves and sabre tooth cats. It is a different environment today. George is right…there is not place for these cattle and horses in a national park.

    • Maggie Frazier says:

      The idea that BLM has actually “managed” the herds – other than using their HMAs for cattle grazing allotments with many times the number of cows as Wild Horses, is just a bit silly. The BLM’s & FS roundups & warehousing of wild horses appears to be the limit of their “management”. Like most wild animals, the horses originally migrated from one area to another – confining them to one particular “pasture” results in exactly the same damage as any domestic animal in a pasture.

      • Jerry L Thiessen says:

        The feds are hamstrung by the Wild Horse and Burro Act that sanctified feral horses and prevents them from killing outright or having hunting seasons to keep their numbers down. All they can do is round them up an either house them at Federal expense or adopt them out. Even then, those who adopt feral horses have to care for them.
        The WH&BA is a huge part of the problem and should be repealed or changed to allow for outright control measures.

        • Ted Chu says:

          Agreed re: the WH&BA however even that misguided legislation does allow for lethal control of horse populations when justified. Horses were domesticated for meat, milk and transportation. It is only with affluence they became a pet species.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      If you support rewilding, then you support restoration of ALL native species, including ones that humans caused to become extinct in the wild or extirpated.

      The way the ecosystems changed because of human-caused extinctions is not natural or good, and those ecosystems should be restored to their pre-human condition to the extent possible. Cattle and domestic sheep are the problems, and feral horses are only problems if they’re in ecosystems where they didn’t evolve and or if their native predators are not present. If the latter is the case, restore those too!

      • Jim Hammett says:

        Hard to restore dire wolves and the several sabre tooth cats that coevolved with Americas’ horses prior to human invasion in the Pliestocene.

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          There are other native predators that could substitute, like wolves and mountain lions. I agree that without natural predation to maintain ecological balance, horses would need to be culled, as much as I’m personally repulsed by the thought of that. But how about restoring wolves and mountain lions first and see how that works instead of just attacking horses?

          • Jim Hammett says:

            There are plenty of montain lions and some wolves in many existing HMAs. Horses are not a prey of choice unless it is an isolated juvenile. A horse is dangerous prey to existing predators and they generally leave them alone. Juveniles are protected by the herds and only occasionally end up as prey.

  6. Susan Fox says:

    Thank you for finally calling the horses on our public lands what they actually are…”feral”, not wild. They are non-native and use resources that genetically wild animals need. If there are tribes who want them and who honor them that’s a different issue and needs to be respected. Otherwise, they need to be removed by whatever humane means necessary.

  7. Chris Zinda says:

    Over the last decade, some environmental organizations like WWP have closely aligned themselves with horse advocates, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” GW doesn’t address this political reality.

    I never understood this arrangement if ecological goals are paramount.

    Curious where WWP stands today. Not only for TRNP, but for all federal public lands.

    • Chris Zinda says:

      So, where does WWP stand on TRNP? NPS sites and designated Wilderness anywhere?

      “Western Watersheds Project has long-advocated for the reduction and cessation of public lands livestock grazing to benefit ecological function and wildlife. WWP has no formal position on the origin of free-roaming horses, but supports science-based management of public lands and prioritize some threats more than others. Some of our members love wild horses and want to see them flourish, while others are opposed to them and consider them a pest. But all of our members agree that we want public lands to be restored to landscapes replete with native vegetation, native wildlife and healthy streams and rivers, as set forth in our mission.”

    • Ted Chu says:

      WWP’s alliance with feral horse advocates defies logic and science.

  8. Jim Hammett says:

    A mule, as everyone knows is a hybred between a horse and a donkey. What many don’t know is that an uncastrated John (male) mule is a viscious animal that will dominate any horse stallion. BUT, a mule is naturally sterile. However, it doesn’t know that and will aggressively prevent any other stallion from breeding wild mares. I have often wondered if stud mules were introduced into wild horse herds if this would result in the eventual control of horse reproduction. It would seem a lot more effective and cheaper than darting the mares with Depoprovera every year.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      Humans shouldn’t be messing with stuff like that. That mentality is the root cause of all of our ecological problems. Bad enough that mules exist to begin with. Animals that were bred by humans instead of evolving naturally should be exterminated, they’re a blight on the Earth.

      • Jim Hammett says:

        So, Jeff, you advocate for the extermination of every domestic dog, cat, chicken, pig, goat, sheep, llama, emu, turkey, horse, pony, Indian elephant, etc?. I think that is a bit extreme. What about plants…wheat, rye, rice, peanuts, soy, sorghum, corn, potatoes?? What calories support you??

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          Plants are not animals, so I’ll skip that portion, except to say that it was wrong of humans to breed varieties or species of plants into existence, though I have no thoughts currently on what should be done about that now. The use of agriculture opened a Pandora’s box of problems, and some or even many of them will not be able to be fixed.

          I think some those animals should be exterminated. The ones that were bred by humans instead of evolving naturally are a blight on the Earth, and I don’t care whether humans like them. I advocate for the Earth and all the life here, not for humans.

          But that said, some of the animals you mentioned DID evolve naturally, starting with horses and cats. Those animals, while changed slightly and superficially, are still basically the same as the animals from which they evolved. Animals like cattle and dogs, on the other hand, are hideous monstrosities compared to the animals from which they were bred, have no ecological niche, and are therefore very ecologically harmful. For example, I worked on removing dogs from an urban National Park system where I live, and the list of dogs chasing, harassing, and killing wildlife was so long that I had to list those harms in categories instead of individually.

    • Ted Chu says:

      That’s a very interesting idea for controlling feral horse populations. I would like to see it tried on an experimental basis. I don’t know how many “johns” you would need to put out there to be effective.

      • Jim Hammett says:

        One per herd.

        • Ida Lupine says:

          Give it a try? I’m for any kind of nonviolent, humane suggestion. I’ve seen some of the stuff that goes on and it isn’t pretty, and is beneath people.

  9. Michael Kellett says:

    The contention that humans were the primary cause of the extirpation of North American horses is speculative and not supported by very much empirical documentation. It is more likely that the cause was climate change and other environmental factors, perhaps along with human exploitation.

    So, there is not a strong scientific basis for the maintenance of horses in TRNP under the assumption they are a restored “native” species. I think the NPS has it right here.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      Why is it more likely that horses became extinct in North America because of “climate change and other environmental factors”? I’d say it’s just the opposite: it’s far more likely that humans drove them extinct, because they became extinct when humans arrived.

  10. Jannett Heckert says:

    I do not agree with you George. First when you say 300,000 you should break that down. In the ten western states most of the wild horses are in holding pens 60,000 – 70,000 by the BLM. There has never been a accurate count of wild horse left in the 10 western state, only fly over guesstimates. Cattle are pushing out wildlife and wild horses. I vote to keep wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Maybe the are not native to North America but they have been on our continent since the 1600 and are native since to the Badlands before it became a National Park. So to me they are native to the Badlands. Bison can get diseases like Brucellosis, horses don’t get Brucellosis. Bison are dangerous and will charge visitors, wild horses don’t. These horses have been part of the land scape and people love seeing the herds. All wildlife in TRNP should stay. Pretty soon, if the Department of Interior has it way that will be the only place you will find wild mustangs.

    • Maggie Frazier says:

      Strange how NOW the NPS wants to “protect” bison from cattle – where near Yellowstone its the cattle that have to be protected from the bison! There has never been a case of brucellosis transmitted from bison to cattle & yet due to the current “rules” bison are not allowed to migrate out of Yellowstone – well, not without being slaughtered by hunters.
      Then there is the blame put onto Wild Horses for range destruction – somehow it never comes up that the horses are far outnumbered by cattle. There are only a few HMAs that dont have grazing allotments.

      • Jeff Hoffman says:

        This is a very hard issue, because it tugs at the heartstrings of those of us who love horses. The Earth and its native ecosystems and species must come first, but I’m not convinced that horses aren’t native here nor that they’re doing any substantial damage. Let’s get rid of all the damn cattle and domestic sheep first, then we can see if wild horses are harming anything.

        • Jerry L Thiessen says:

          This article by GW has raised a lot of interest. The remarks and arguments have been all over the place: political, biological, ecological, personal etc.
          Let’s be clear: We cannot rewind 15000 years and recreate the ecology, with many of its variations, in North America no matter how much we would like to see it in all its diversity and glory. What was left of large Wild mammals after man wreaked his havoc was deer, elk, moose, bison, caribou, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, pronghorn, black bear, grizzly bear, mountain lion, wolf, and a variety of smaller predators and prey species. The 70 percent of large mammals that went away were huge slow moving beasts that were preyed upon by man and awful predators like dire wolves, similion tigers, cave bears, American cheetahs etc. Hoping to reincarnate ground sloths, mammoths, horses, archaic bison, camels etc. to mimic the pre-historic ecological conditions is a pipe dream. Man has changed everything and is totally in charge.
          A horse is a horse is a horse is an oxymoron. The Wild Horse herds of today are rodeo and race track stock, hardly the same as the original North American zebra. Let’s not pretend otherwise even though our romantic tendencies are tugging at our heart strings.
          Alley cats are not mountain lions, dachshunds are not wolves and Angus cattle are not bison.
          Western ranchers hate feral horses because they compete with cattle for forage on public land. I dislike feral horses and other domestic livestock on public land because they are out of sync in semi-arid ecosystems and take up space and natural resources vital to native wildlife. That is a fact. We the people, the rightful owners of the public domain, should be outraged that private resources of a very few are used to profit from and degrade our public resources.
          Domestic livestock are valuable resources on their own but should be raised accordingly: cattle in private feedlots and horses in private pastures.
          The place to start with the horse problem is to either repeal the Wild Horse and Burro Act or ammendment it to allow the BLM and USFS to rid or greatly reduce the number of feral horses on public land by the most efficient means. The cattle problem is separate and should be handled through the Eminent Domain process. The public and good resource stewardship deserves nothing less.

          • Jeff Hoffman says:

            Are you saying that you don’t support rewilding? Please respond, then I’ll respond to your comments.

            • Jerry L Thiessen says:

              Rewilding as a concept is laudable, especially regarding interconnecting refugia across North America and working with all political and scientific entities to make it happen to the fullest extent possible. In other words, conserving existing habitat and rehabbing public lands to accommodate the requirements of native wildlife to thrive is a very worthy goal. It’s all about habitat.
              But, that has little to do with feral horses as part of the scheme. Playing make believe with rodeo ponies is not prudent. We would do more good with carousel horses.

              • Jeff Hoffman says:

                OK, just needed to know where you stand on rewilding in order to respond properly.

                As to rewinding history, of course we can’t. But that’s not the idea here. The idea is to RESTORE, to the greatest extent possible, all the native life in at least some ecosystems (I would hope eventually ALL, but that’s a very long-term goal). It’s undeniable that humans caused major destruction when they first came to the Americas — though that was nothing compared to what the European colonists caused — and caused extinctions of many megafauna. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to restore the lost megafauna to the extent possible. I fully understand your ecological argument that individual species are parts of the whole and work together, so that the lack of natural predators of horses while maintaining the horses would cause horses to overpopulate. But as I said to Jim Hammett, other currently existing native predators could be used as substitutes. If that’s not feasible, as Jim claims, then humans could sterilize some of the horses occasionally to prevent overpopulation. I see no reason to refrain from restoring ALL native species as possible unless, as you point out, doing so would cause more harm than good. And BTW, horses are not slow; they can run twice as fast as the fastest humans, as can most large four-legged animals.

                You have your facts wrong regarding which species of horses existed before humans got to North America. See my response to Ted Chu above. And I never said “a horse is a horse,” nor is that an oxymoron. In the context of your position on this, it’s just a false statement. An oxymoron creates a self-contradiction, and there is none here, it’s just a false statement.

                “I dislike feral horses and other domestic livestock on public land because they are out of sync in semi-arid ecosystems and take up space and natural resources vital to native wildlife.” How could they possibly be “out of sync” if they evolved in those ecosystems? Horses evolved in western North America.

                Overall, I strongly disagree with this hatred of horses. There are exponentially more cattle and more domestic sheep grazing public lands than there are horses. Horses are naturally-evolved animals — yes, I understand that they’ve been domesticated, but there’s little if any significant difference between most domesticate horses and the original wild ones — while cattle and domestic sheep are not. Why not focus on the real problems here, which are mainly cattle and secondarily domestic sheep? If after removing those harms, horses are also causing harm, then we can deal with that.

                • Jim Hammett says:

                  No one hates horses, we just hate what they can do to vegetation if numbers get high.
                  I don’t think anyone really knows if today’s horses are similar to those extirpated 10K years ago. Humans can accelerate natural evolution, and undoubtedly have — physically, and behaviorally — it is probable that today’s horses are very different from those that existed before reintroduction.
                  While we’d all like to see all domestic livestock off public lands — that is appearing more and more like a pipe-dream (remember “cattle-free by 93?” I do). What seems doable is to insist that the vegetation meets BLM’s standards. The majority of allotments don’t even come close. That might be a reasonable goal.

                • Jeff Hoffman says:

                  We basically agree then. One statement with which I disagree is that humans can accelerate natural evolution. That’s provably false. Everything that humans do is unnatural by definition, except for maybe hunter-gatherers. Humans have DISRUPTED natural evolution by causing extinctions and destroying habitats & ecosystems.

                • Jerry L Thiessen says:

                  I am not a horse hater by any stretch. My issue with feral horses is both ecological and political. I have seen the damage first hand caused by feral horses. The land would be in better shape all around without them. There are no natural checks except lack of food or water and that is a lose-lose from any perspective. The second problem is tied directly to the first. The terrible emotionally driven Wild Horse and Burro Act, that prevents reasonable efforts to prevent the first,is ecologically irrational. Domestic cattle compound the problem for sure, but that fix requires a different approach.
                  Your assertion that feral horses today are the same species as roamed thousands of years ago, and therefore benign occupants of the environment, is still subject to further study. All domestic animals came from wild stock. Today, there are 190+ breeds of domestic dog, 280+ breeds of domestic cow, 60+ breeds of domestic horse, 50+ breeds of domestic sheep, 45+ breeds of domestic cat and 50+ breeds of domestic pig. All of these descended from wild animals and all have DNA similar to the foundation stock. As I said before, a dashaund is not a wolf.
                  If what you say about the horse is true, there are millions upon millions of eligible transplant candidates around the world just waiting to return to their original evolutionary roots in western North America.
                  This is my last post on this subject.

          • Ida Lupine says:

            I don’t know, just because we’ve meddled with genetics doesn’t make them not related to their wild ancestors.

            It’s a problem that we have created, as usual, and to take the simplest, most cruel solution instead of something just to address it, to just trash everything we no longer need, inanimate or living, is all kinds of immoral in my opinion.

            We’d never do that to ourselves, of course, with our overpopulated multitudes. Conveniently, we’re exempt!

          • Ida Lupine says:

            I see what you are saying and I agree. Humans do get carried away with their grandiose schemes, don’t they. I was reading about plans to bring back wooly mammoths! We’d do well to concentrate on saving the rhinos, right whales and other wildlife on the verge of extinction, and rewilding to the extent possible.

            I would never support the repeal of the Wild Horses and Burros Act though. I feel it is callous and cruel, what this man in ND is suggesting. I’m thankful I gave up eating beef years ago, never did like it much, and will never buy it again. Not only does it allow for destruction of land and wildlife, but it is terribly cruel to the cattle themselves.

          • Alison James says:

            Gosh that’s spoken like a genuine cattle or sheep rancher!

      • Ida Lupine says:

        I can’t bear it, I truly can’t.

        Leave these horses alone! While I agree that rewilding to the extent possible is laudable goal, we will never, ever be able to bring back entirely what was destroyed. Because namely, we are here, and certain non-native plants and animals will never be removed because we need/want them. To pick on horses is cruel and unethical, but what else is new with humans, I suppose.

        We owe a great debt to horses, we simply cannot use them and then kill them when they are no longer useful. Even when we try to help, we destroy.

        And horses are emblematic to our country now, and the American West. I feel it is terribly cruel and inhumane to treat them the way we do.

  11. Ida Lupine says:

    I think whales and marine life are the next to go, with all the rushed plans for millions of acres of offshore wind. How do we justify destroying other living creatures? I’m at a loss to understand. It makes me sick.

  12. Charles Fox says:

    The ungulates are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do: utilize available resources to produce a modest surplus of themselves year on year.

    It seems that what’s missing from this biological equation is carnivores, and I don’t mean humans. Some level of predation could balance the situation here as it does in many other places, in fact globally if humans haven’t made that impossible by killing the carnivores.

    Domestication, or enslavement, as I prefer to call it because I think that’s more accurate, shouldn’t necessarily preclude any species or individual from basic consideration. Let’s not forget that humans basically domesticated themselves, and we certainly want to be considered.

    It’s hard being alive and having to suffer and die and watch the world be killed by humans. I’ve seen too much not to be an anti-natalist.

    • Ida Lupine says:

      Yes! Great post. We think we can take the place of/improve upon nature, with disastrous results.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      The issue is whether the ungulates in question, in this instance horses, are native. If so, then the issue you raised about their native predators becomes the next issues.

      The problem is that humans, both Natives and colonizers, have harmed these ecosystems and their native species so much that it takes a lot of work, research, and knowledge to try to fix things, if they even can be fixed. Ecosystems depend on all of the parts, and when parts are unnaturally removed by humans, it can become impossible for the ecosystems and their processes to function properly.

      • Jerry L Thiessen says:

        If TRNP was intended by its founding documents to be a Living Museum, then by all means feature original buildings etc. plus promote an aura of the old west including cowboys, six-guns, old lineage cattle and cow ponies. No problem. If, on the other hand, it was intended to be preserved as a natural attraction with preserved prehistoric natural features, native flora an fauna and unaltered landscapes, then get rid of the unnatural paraphernalia and romance. Both management goals have their places but we are making way too much over a philosophical hand-wringing argument about cows and horses. Shoot the damn cattle and horses or round them up and move them out if the goal is to return the landscape to a natural and more or less unaltered state, but manage the TTNP as a replica of the original working ranch if that is the objective. It sounds like the former has priority and legal documentation.
        Jeff Hoffman’s term “function properly” has no scientific basis. It is a term that has human opinion and judgement at its root.

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          First, I don’t worship science. But second, there certainly is a scientific basis for functioning properly, it’s called “ecology.” Of course ecosystems can function properly or not, and that’s not opinion, it’s reality. An ecosystem functions properly when it has all of its native species and is otherwise unharmed by humans, and it does not function properly otherwise.

          I guess you don’t get the concept of “native” species. Moreover, your obsession with getting rid of horses says more about your hatred of horses than anything. There are so many more cattle than there are feral horses that those horses should be no more than an afterthought. Get rid of the cattle first, then we can discuss the horses if necessary.

          • Jerry L Thiessen says:

            Mr.Hoffman, we don’t have to worship science (whatever that means), but having a basic knowledge of scientific principles and a respect for the ssme is a good start.
            Please stop the personal attacks. I don’t hate horses. Thank you.

            • Jeff Hoffman says:

              I don’t see anything I wrote that constitutes a personal attack, unless you think that saying that you hate horses is so. I’m responding to your positions, not to you personally. Again, your obsession with removing horses tells me that you hate horses. You claim that’s not true. OK, then why are you obsessed with removing horses when there are exponentially more cattle?

              As to science, western science is extremely reductionist and mechanistic. It therefore has a very myopic and warped view of the universe and the life here. While some disciplines, like ecology, don’t suffer from those problems, or at least suffer from them a lot less, I view life through a holistic and spiritual lens, not a scientific one. Resorting to a scientific argument when it comes to the natural environment always raises a red flag with me. Traditional indigenous people the world over generally know what needs to be known about ecological processes, and western science is generally used as an excuse for harming ecosystems and the life in them. I recognize the very limited and myopic truths that science can provide, but the intellect is a mere tool and is grossly overused by humans, which is one of the fundamental problems with us.

  13. Alison James says:

    Up until now I read and respected GW’s articles in CounterPunch. NO MORE! His information is biased toward ranchers, NPS and BLM and the whole article has been summarily and not thoroughly researched. Not a good article at all.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      What exactly does George say that’s biased toward ranchers or government agencies? George clearly wants the cattle and horses removed. He just REPORTED that there’s opposition to that removal.

      • Alison James says:

        Hi Jeff
        His article is factually incorrect. If he had even researched a little more and parroted back incorrect BLM numbers that would proven he’d researched in some depth, but alas no.

        • Jeff says:

          Again, what did he say that’s incorrect. You just keep repeating the same thing, which has no more credibility than name calling.

  14. Castle McLaughlin says:

    The author uses general critiques of feral horses that do not apply at TRNP, and neglects to consider that the NPS manages and interprets cultural resources as well as natural resources. TRNP is neither an over-grazed arid landscape like Nevada nor a marine wetlands area like Cumberland Island, and there has been no research that establishes that the horses are damaging the environment.
    The park superintendent admits that there is no such evidence in published remarks.

    Grazing is an integral park of grasslands ecosystems, and as the author knows, some scientists consider horses to be native species since they evolved in North America. Recently a rewilding project in Europe focused on bison restoration included horses in order to recreate Pleistocene ecological conditions. This issue is debatable, but again, the ND situation is not comparable to BLM herd management areas.

    The North Dakota horses have been in the badlands since before the park was established, and were described by Theodore Roosevelt and his contemporaries. The NPS has interpreted them as an “historic demonstration herd” that illustrates Roosevelt’s open-range ranching era. Roosevelt’s Elkhorn ranch and the Peaceful Valley Ranch, both in the park, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the park is included on the NPS list of “Cultural Landscapes,” which are areas of historic significance as well as natural history. The reason for that classification is the open-range ranching era, and the horses have been considered to be integral to that story. Many visitors consider them to be the chief attraction of the park, which is North Dakota’s top tourist destination. The state of North Dakota opposes their elimination because of their significance to ND history and popularity, and has offered to help with research and management of the herd to mitigate the cost to the NPS. Such a partnership could be fruitful and positive.

    The author also states that M.bovis was discovered in the park in 2022, but in another news article the TRNP superintendent says it has not been detected in the park.

    The author also discounts tribal perspectives, but the park is on former tribal lands. The NPS has an office of Native Affairs and is obliged to consult with local tribes on policies and actions and does so routinely with regard to management of the park’s bison. It is appropriate that they have also consulted about the horses, whose ancestors included Native stock, as noted by Robert Utley, chief historian for the NPS.

    In short, the author does a disservice to this debate by ignoring the specific context of TRNP and the cultural and historic mandates of the NPS.


February 2023


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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