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The Nokota Horse

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

photo by JZ. All other photos here, save the last one, are by Bill Thompson III.

Perhaps you've seen mustangs running across a ridge against the sky somewhere out West. Maybe you've felt that thrill to the spine at finally viewing this icon of the old West. I can't imagine a better place to experience it than Theodore Roosevelt National Monument in Medora, North Dakota.

Like prairie dogs, wild horses are persecuted, unwanted almost wherever they occur. This makes them tough, wary, and hard to get close to. But they're protected here, sort of. Why the "sort of?"

Well, it's an interesting story. And I'll preface this by saying that these photographs, which Bill of the Birds and I took in North Dakota, are of horses living wild, but not necessarily of wild bloodlines. Here's why:

The wild horses that originally populated western North Dakota were direct descendants of Lakota ponies, which of course derived from Spanish Colonial stock. They were small, slightly scrubby, but strong, intelligent, and willing. They were thought not to be much good, despite the fact that they had survived all on their own in this cruel habitat, made it through Great Plains winters by pawing for dry grass and whatever else they could find. Their hooves were hard as flint and so were their spirits.

In the Great Depression, wild horses were systematically hunted down and exterminated, to eliminate competition for coveted rangeland. Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established in the late '40's, and fenced in. Whoops, some wild horses were inside the fence, having fled to the badlands where no one could find them. By the 1960's, wild horses had been exterminated in North Dakota--except for the ones in the park.

But even those were hunted down. The population dropped as low as 20 individuals within the park by 1979. Public protest caused the park to declare it would maintain a small "demonstration herd" to show what Teddy Roosevelt described in his writing about ranching the Little Missouri area around 1885:

In a great many--indeed, in most--localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some Indian or ranch outfit, or else claiming such as their sires and dams, are yet quite as wild as the antelope on whose range they have intruded.

Next: Saving the Nokota Horse


Gosh, this will be unpopular, but it seems to me that horses due to the cute factor get away with being feral exotics, while other exotics are rightfully removed from public lands.

As appealing as horses are, coming from the land of exotic invasions, I can't support feral horse populations on public land.
At the same time, I support preservation of historical breeds, just not where they do not belong.
A ranch yes. Wildlands no.

I can't wait to see the wild horses on Cumberland Island when we go in the spring. There is something so beautiful about how they interact with one another.

Yes, they are an invasive species, and I agree that a lot of the push to preserve them in the wild is based on sentimental reasons rather than sound scientific ones. Horses and the West go hand in hand, and the West is in the minds of many the "final frontier", even though the frontier is long gone. I guess in the end the decision to keep or remove them should be based not whether or not they're native but if they are destructive to the ecosystems upon which they live. If they're harmful to native flora and fauna, then they should go. If not, then why not keep them and enjoy their presence?

Much more on this topic later today, in my next post. Thanks to Floridacracker for raising the question I plan to address.

Thanks for this info about Nokota horses. They are not that famous breed unlike the Arabian horse, yet their history is quite interesting.

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