Wildlife & Biodiversity

North Dakota: 200 wild horses related to Custer’s Last Stand can stay in park where Teddy Roosevelt spent formative years

Herd had been considered risk earlier, with tendency to trample or overgraze vegetation used by native wildlife species, contribute to erosion and soil-related impacts

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 01 May 2024
(Left) George Armstrong Custer. Photo credit: Library of Congress. (Right) Theodore Roosevelt. Photo credit: White House

A herd of almost 200 wild horses descended from animals used in a famous battle in United States history can stay on in the park that is their home and once shaped the formative years of a beloved US president.

John Hoeven, the Republic Senator for the state of North Dakota, announced in a statement on April 25 that he had secured a commitment from the National Park Service (NPS) to maintain the wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP).

“The NPS will immediately terminate its proposed removal of horses at TRNP under the environmental assessment (EA) process initiated in 2022, and as a result, the existing management plan for the wild horses will remain in place. This will allow for a healthy herd of wild horses to be maintained at the park, managed in a way to support genetic diversity among the herd and preserve the park’s natural resources,” the statement read.

The TRNP is where Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, 26th US president and a big admirer of the outdoors, hunted and engaged in cattle ranching in the 1880s, according to to a report by the Associated Press.

“These wild horses are emblematic of President Theodore Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota, a formative experience that shaped his presidency and lasting legacy,” said Senator Hoeven.

A Park Service environmental assessment from September 2023 had expressed concern that the herd “has the potential to damage fences used for wildlife management, trample or overgraze vegetation used by native wildlife species, contribute to erosion and soil-related impacts ... and compete for food and water resources”.

AP reported that the decision to terminate the review “was made after careful consideration of the information and public comment received during the [environmental assessment] process”.

Park authorities reached out to North Dakota’s indigenous tribes as well as citizens as to what should be done with the herd. Most wanted to let the animals remain in the area.

“Given the broad public support for maintaining the wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, as well as the measure we passed through Congress, this is the right call by NPS,” Hoeven noted.

The horse herd roams the park’s South Unit according to AP.


AP quoted the park’s superintendent as saying that “even if the horses ultimately stay, (they) will still have to be reduced to 35 to 60 animals”.

Castle McLaughlin, who retired as Curator of North American Ethnography at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, had researched and traced the origin of the horses to animals used by Native American Hunkpapa Lakota chiefs of the Great Sioux Nation (Oceti Sakowin) at the pivotal Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.

The Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples of the Great Plains completely defeated and killed over 270 soldiers of one of the US Army’s most reputed regiments, the 7th Cavalry. The dead included the 7th Cavalry’s commanding officer, George Armstrong Custer.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn (known to the Lakota as the Battle of the Greasy Grass) was part of the ‘Indian Wars’, which followed the US Civil War, as Euro-American settlers pushed west and crossed the Mississippi in an attempt to colonise more land, in accordance with the concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’, first floated by John L O’Sullivan. A journalist and editor, Sullivan believed it was inevitable that the borders of the US would spread westwards.

Historians have attributed the encroachment of white settlers into the then-Dakota Territory’s Black Hills, an area sacred to indigenous Americans, as one of the major reasons for the Little Big Horn. The US government wanted the Sioux to subsequently give up the land for white settlement.

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