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Patrick Springer, Published July 28 2013

Animal lovers use social media in effort to save ND wild horses

Fargo - Thousands of people are reading about the saga of stallions like Thunder and mares like Spotted Blue as they wait to learn the fate of their offspring in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.

Will the young wild horses find caring homes or will they be sent to the slaughterhouse?

Rangers at the park plan to round up more than 100 horses this fall to thin the herd, and surplus horses will be sold at auction Sept. 28.

Supporters of the park horses, who have tracked the herd for years and keep a registry listing each horse and its lineage, are mounting Facebook campaigns to spread the word in the hope of placing the horses with caring buyers.

“They are more worthy of ending up with good, loving families instead of on a dinner plate,” said Eileen Norton, who launched “Wild in North Dakota,” a Facebook page promoting the horses. “They deserve life after living wild.”

After the last horse roundup in the park, in 2009, eight of 77 horses sold at auction ended up going to the “kill market,” horses bought for slaughter, according to horse advocates.

Norton posted photos of the horses lost to slaughter under the caption, “Gone but not forgotten.”

“It’s not to be dramatic, but this is the reality,” she said. “There was nothing wrong with those horses.”

The park maintains a demonstration herd of what it calls feral horses to commemorate the wild horses that roamed the rugged badlands when Theodore Roosevelt ranched in the area during the open range 1880s.

The current population of the horse herd is between 205 and 210, while the target range runs from 55 to 90 or a bit higher, said Eileen Andes, the park’s chief of interpretation.

The horses share the grass with buffalo, elk and deer, and populations of the major grazers must be controlled to prevent overgrazing. For horses and buffalo, that means periodic roundups and removals.

The horses are a popular attraction at the park, where many visitors are surprised to learn of the horse herd, Andes said.

“It’s one of those iconic western scenes to see the Badlands with these horses,” she added, “so a lot of people enjoy these horses.”

Norton and likeminded horse lovers are finding success with Facebook, the social media site, to build upon that popularity in the hope of finding homes for the horses.

Her “Wild in North Dakota” Facebook page has attracted almost 15,000 followers, who follow updates involving stories about each of the park’s 20 bands of horses as well as sightings of individual horses, all of them named to make them easier to track.

“I just really thought these guys deserve to have their stories told,” she said of the horses. “My job first and foremost is to raise awareness of the herd.”

Norton, who first saw the horses 32 years ago while attending Dickinson State University, is a Twin Cities native who now lives an hour away from San Diego in southern California.

“I would go out and photograph the bison and had no idea the horses were out there,” Norton said, until she saw a band on a butte and was so startled she almost ran off the road.

Then, beginning six years ago and following a diplomatic career – including a posting in Japan, where she was dismayed to learn fresh horsemeat is considered a delicacy – she became an avid follower of the park herd.

She and her husband have three park horses, two of them half-brothers, coming from the same mare.

With help from a trainer, she gradually “gentled” the horses, first winning their trust and eventually was able to saddle them.

“They’re very loving, happy, adjusted horses,” Norton said.

One of her horses, “Charlie,” never passes a puddle of fresh rainwater without drinking, a habit acquired in the badlands, where dry conditions are common.

Marylu Weber, who has followed the park horses for almost 15 years, runs another Facebook community, North Dakota Badlands Horse, with more than 2,300 followers from around the United States and abroad.

Weber started under the tutelage of the late Tom Tescher, a Medora rancher who tracked the horses going back to the 1950s.

She began volunteering for the park on behalf of the horses in 1999, and keeps the North Dakota Badlands Horse Registry for horses that come out of the park since the 2009 roundup.

“We’ve got people from all over the country wanting these horses,” said Weber, whose Facebook page promoting the horses is called “North Dakota Badlands Horse.”

Both Weber and Norton, who have bought and trained former park horses and keep them for riding, are enthusiasts of what they say is a unique horse, sure-footed and hardy, yet very gentle once tamed.

In the wild, roaming the park’s south unit, the horses must survive extreme temperatures, baking heat in summer and winter blizzards. They share the range with buffalo, elk, deer and other mammals.

“That’s what makes them a breed all their own,” Norton said. “They are such strong horses. They are survivors.”

Weber, who has owned four horses that came from the park, said those buying the horses must be committed to working with a wild horse.

“They see people a lot, but they have not been handled at all,” she said. “These horses are completely wild. So they do require a lot of experience or know-how on gentling horses.”

It’s especially important to work to build trust and rapport with the horse early on, Weber said. “It takes a lot of time commitment and patience,” she said.

But, she added, “These horses train and gentle beautifully.”

The last auction of park horses, in Dickinson in 2009, was marred by an incident. One of the stallions, spooked by the sales barn crowd, jumped the sales ring fence.

Nobody was injured, but bidding was halted, and no more horses were sold individually in the ring. Instead, remaining horses were sold in pen lots.

That’s how eight horses ended up in the hands of a slaughterhouse buyer, Weber and Norton said.

Ironically, the stallion that bolted, Bashful, went to a Bismarck owner who trained the horse, now transformed into a gentle animal, Weber said.

The Sept. 28 auction will be at Wishek Livestock Sales in Wishek, where the organizer said he is working to ensure a smooth sale.

“We’re going to try to make it the best sale the park has ever had,” said Clyde Meidinger, who handles horse auctions at the sale barn. “We want every horse to find a good home.”

In fact, the town of 1,000 has embraced the auction and the influx of horse lovers that could turn out to bid on the wild horses. The community plans live music entertainment and local civic groups will host fundraising meals for the horse crowd.

“We’re going to make it a big deal,” said Laura Hochhalter, who owns a hair salon and serves as president of the Wishek Association of Commerce. “We want to open the community to these wild horse people.”

The area is farm and ranch country, and is likely to produce some bidders of its own at the auction, Hochhalter believes.

“We do have a lot of local horse people here,” she said.

Wishek, located 230 miles southeast of Medora, is aware of the interest the impending horse sale has drawn on Facebook, but has no way to estimate the number of bidders who will show up.

Meidinger said the sale arena has seating for about 250, and a modest admission fee will be imposed to try to keep out the idly curious.

Also, arrangements have been made with BEK Communications to simulcast the auction sale in the Wishek Civic Auditorium, so any overflow crowd could be accommodated, he said.

“We’ll be able to handle this deal,” Meidinger said. “I think there’s room for everybody.”

Also, there will be opportunities for people to see the horses before the sale. Those who make advance arrangements can bid by telephone if they are unable to attend.

Bill Whitworth, the park’s chief of resource management, said the Wishek location could be beneficial, since many horse buyers come from the east, including Minnesota.

“We have strong support for the horses out east,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to have these horses adopted.”


If you go

• What: Auction of wild horses from Theodore Roosevelt National Park

• When: 11 a.m. Sept. 28; horse viewing 1–5 p.m. Sept. 27 and before the sale from 8–10 a.m. Sept. 28

• Where: Wishek Livestock Sales, Wishek, N.D.

• Info: $10 entrance fee. Terms of sale are cash day of sale. Buyers who purchase with a check must provide a letter of reference from the bank. Phone bids can be made by advance arrangement. For more information on auction and associated events, including music entertainment, meals and accommodations, check Wishek Livestock Sales website.


Online

• Photographs and information about the horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park can be found at www.trnphorses.phanfare.com or on Facebook on the “North Dakota Badlands Horse” and “Wild in North Dakota” pages.

• Details about the Sept. 28 auction of park horses and associated events in Wishek, N.D., can be found at Wishek Livestock Sales, www.wisheklivestock.com


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522