JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

That’s the title of a storied 1969 movie starring Jane Fonda. The first time I saw it was the first time I fell in love with Jane Fonda. God, she was hot. I was a lad of barely 20, and she was 10 years older than me, but I’ve been in love with her from a distance ever since.

No horses were shot in the making of that movie. But the title has come to mind because of the controversy surrounding the wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Those horses are much in the news lately. The National Park Service wants to get rid of them. Horse advocates are desperate to keep them. How the NPS would dispose of them is not clear. In this story from The Dickinson Press, shooting the horses is mentioned as one option. Check it out:

Wild Horse Roundup Commences In TR National Park

By Jackie Anderson

Dickinson Press Staffer

BUCKHORN BUTTE, N. D. — A wild horse round-up got underway Friday which might well go down in North Dakota history, and perhaps the United States, as being the last of its kind.

Deep in the heart of the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, eight riders dispersed in as many directions, seeking a herd of wild horses that has roamed the Badlands for as long as anyone can recall. The purpose of the roundup is simple. The wild horses are to be removed from the park premises.

If and when the animals are captured, their demise is yet unsure. Participants in the roundup are somewhat vague about what will become of the wild horses once they are caught. Some say they will be sold for rodeo stock, canners, or saddle stock. Others state flatly that the horses will be shot. In any event, the herd must first be rounded up, and this, as history proves, is no easy matter.

Riders taking part in the massive and unique roundup are, for the most part, themselves, native to the rugged Dakota Badlands. Saddling up in the dark of an early morning and riding over this rugged terrain until late at night is nothing new nor particularly unusual to these hardy cowboys. They have done it many times before. Their job is a tough assignment, but they are optimistic about it being a successful roundup. The horses will be corralled and removed from the TR park grasslands.

Ranchers and other residents living near the proximity of the park borders are not happy about the ultimatum delivered to the Medora park headquarters. Reliable sources within the National Park Service say the directive to remove the horses came from Omaha. It seems to the natives living in the Badlands that the herd of wild horses was doing no harm and if anything added a flavor to the park wildlife unlike that found at any other national park. When speaking of the wild herd, local citizens were quick to tell anyone who might ask a bit of the history and folklore surrounding this freedom-loving band of horses.

For as long as anyone can remember, horses have been a part of the North Dakota Badlands. A search through the pages of history would probably reveal who brought the first horses into this rugged country, but lack of time and space prevents such a thorough study here.

Oldtimers still living in the Badlands relate tales that abound with horse adventure. Natives who have devoted a lifetime or plan on it to make a living from this unique country agree that without horses, ranching in the Dakota Badlands would be an impossibility.

How and when this doomed herd of horses became wild is unknown. It is simply their misfortune to become victims of a bureaucratic director that labels them interlopers and further declares them to be an unnatural addition to what has become a National Memorial Park rather than a paradise for a small herd of wild horses. Horses, whether wild or otherwise, are not native to the Badlands and are therefore unwelcome within the Park’s boundaries, since it must contain by directive only native animals.

The order to remove the wild horses isn’t new to the National Park Service personnel at the Medora headquarters. Over the years, many a superintendent has been faced with the unwelcome task of trying to remove the wild horses from the park’s premises and in fact have ordered the animals be removed from time to time. For various reasons the directive was never fully carried out. Perhaps, as the natives would like to believe, the order to remove the horses seemed too ridiculous to take seriously.

How long will it take to round up an undetermined number of wild horses? That’s a question even the dauntless cowboys who have undertaken the task can’t answer. Friday was the first day of the roundup. Perhaps it will be the last. However at sundown, the waiting corral was still empty. With the aid of a powerful set of binoculars and intermittent fair visibility it was possible to locate atop distant buttes in the heart of the Buckhorn country, four riders who apparently spent most of the day keeping a hopeful eye peeled for signs of the wild herd while others rode over country known as the wild ones’ stamping ground.

At least three head of animals being sought were not only located but chased and then lost in a maze of draws, washes and ravines. For the moment the wild horses had the upper hand and, depending on which end of the spectrum you place your hopes, perhaps a few of them will survive this roundup to await a chase some other day.

However, the general consensus among those knowledgeable is not an optimistic one for the wild ponies. The ultimatum, we are told, to the removal directive is also simple —i f the horses cannot be rounded up by means now underway they will be destroyed.

Somehow, the directive to remove the horses seems immaterial now. One is more prone to wonder at, and ponder, the “why.”

Oh, I forgot to mention, the story appeared in The Dickinson Press on Saturday, May 29, 1965. A couple of weeks later, Jackie wrote this story:

Wild Horses Disappearing In Teddy Roosevelt Park

By Jackie Anderson

Dickinson Press Staffer

MEDORA, N.D. – A small band of wild horses roaming the rugged back country of Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park have had their number depleted by several hard riding cowboys operating under the auspices of the National Park Service. The herd, native to the area for many years, has been slated for removal from the park’s premises.

Reasons for removing the horses varied. One of the most oft repeated is that the herd is usurping grass from the other animals in the park. Another reason stated that the horses were not native to the park area and therefore do not belong.

To date, affidavits in the Billings County Courthouse show that four of the wild horses have been taken out of the park by hard riding cowboys. Although it has been said by a prominent park official that most of the animals in the herd are branded, and that the riders are simply removing their own stock, the affidavits on record show all four horses to be unbranded yearlings and 2-year-olds. It is believed that a few branded animals have been removed from the wild band during the round-up which commenced the last week in May.

One rider claims he quit the “game” early because he didn’t care for the methods employed by the park service. According to this disillusioned cowpoke, he was told by park rangers to avoid roads and tourists while on the roundup.

Said the cowboy, “I guess they didn’t want anyone to know what they were up to — they paid me in cash.” It was the impression of this cowboy, as well as other riders participating in the gathering, that all the horses will be removed from the park, branded or otherwise.

How this task is to be accomplished has not yet been revealed apparently. Whether or not the riders will continue capturing what is left of the wild horse herd until they are all removed is also a matter of conjecture since Park Officials seem reluctant to discuss factual plans.

A flight Friday over the area the wild band has called “home” for years revealed to three pair of searching eyes only two horses. The two stood alone in the vicinity of Buckhorn Butte, a spot long known by ranchers in the Badlands as “horse country.”

Flying criss-cross over Jewel’s Creek and around cedar buttes where the wily ponies were known to have frequented, the air-born trio (including this writer), spotted no horses. The flight produced only two horses of what was reportedly a herd of at least 20.

— The Dickinson Press June 11, 1965

Well, that was then, 1965. The park was still a “Memorial Park.” It did not obtain full National Park status until 1978. I didn’t find any stories in old Press files telling the final outcome of that roundup, but obviously the horse herd survived.  In his 1986 book “At The Open Margin,” a pretty definitive history of the park to that date, David Harmon told of subsequent roundup attempts, and there have been several attempts by the NPS over the years since to get rid of the critters.

The current directive, issued in 2023 by the NPS national office, is the most serious to date. The  NPS is clear — it wants the horses gone. Sometime this year, in 2024, NPS personnel will decide if they are going to do that. It’s been a big story, not just in North Dakota, but in the national media. Newspapers all over America have carried the Associated Press stories about the horses and the park. The discussion in the stories has been about whether the horses will go, or stay. What they haven’t been about is how they will be disposed of if the decision is made to get rid of them. You don’t suppose they’d shoot them, do you?

Stay tuned.

Leave a Reply