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Preserving Nokota Horses: Horse conservancy calls for recognition of TRNP breed's historic value

Descendants of wild horses roam the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora on July 28, 2007. A group looking to recognize and preserve the historical value of the Nokota horse in the park is seeking support from the North Dakota Legislature.

FARGO -- North Dakota's honorary horse breed doesn't get the respect supporters believe it's due in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

They've turned to the North Dakota Legislature to send a message to the National Park Service to work to preserve the Nokota horse breed, which traces its lineage to Indian ponies and early ranch stock in the Badlands.

"It's a question of doing a right thing," said Frank Kuntz of the Nokota Horse Conservancy in Linton. "These horses have a wonderful history and they deserve that recognition."

The horses roam the South Unit of the western North Dakota park near Medora and are maintained as a demonstration herd of the wild horses that wandered the Little Missouri Badlands during the era of the open range when Roosevelt was a cattle rancher.

For more than two decades, Kuntz and other supporters have been pushing to have the breed preserved at the park.

During the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the horse was targeted for removal from the park, and other horse types were brought in for breeding.

Backers of the horse have urged the National Park Service for more than two decades to preserve what remains of the mustang-like horse at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

They have drawn influential supporters, including former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who urged the park to work with the horse preservation group, and Robert Utley, a former chief historian for the National Park Service and renowned western historian.

Utley, retired and living in Texas, wrote to National Park Service officials six years ago urging the park to preserve the Nokota bloodlines.

Castle McLaughlin, a researcher at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, has linked some of the park's horses as descendants of ponies surrendered by Sitting Bull and his supporters at Fort Buford in 1881.

A chain of documentary evidence traces the horses through a sale by post traders to the Marquis des Mores, a contemporary of Roosevelt's and the founder of Medora, and later to other ranchers in the Badlands.

The park has refused to manage its horse herd with the goal of preserving the Nokota bloodline, claiming it would require DNA or other scientific evidence linking the park horses to Sitting Bull's followers.

Utley, who wrote a biography of Sitting Bull, said the Park Service is demanding scientific evidence to settle a historical question that should be resolved by historical evidence. He finds McLaughlin's research persuasive.

"I believe that she has made the connection between the Sitting Bull ponies and the cowboy ponies that have produced the unique Nokota blend," Utley said in an interview recorded by a member of the Nokota Horse Conservancy.

The Park Service is obligated to preserve the horse, as it is Roosevelt's cabin and the landscape itself, Utley said.

McLaughlin, who also is active with the Nokota Horse Conservancy, said the Park Service's insistence on genetic evidence is unreasonable.

"They know that evidence can never be available because obviously nobody took DNA from the horses 150 years ago," she said. "It's setting a standard that would be impossible to try to meet."

Eileen Andes, the chief of interpretation at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, said park officials have no comment on the resolution before the North Dakota Legislature.

The resolution urges the Park Service to "recognize the historical value of the Nokota horse in this state's ranching and Indian culture and to manage the feral horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in a manner that ensures the preservation of the Nokota bloodline."

Meanwhile, the horse herd in the park is estimated at 150, and officials will determine whether some of the horses should be removed later this year to prevent over-grazing, Andes said.