All the pretty horses: Wild ponies slated to be removed from Theodore Roosevelt National Park

All the pretty horses: Wild ponies slated to be removed from Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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MEDORA — Tiffany Craigo followed a familiar animal trail that winds through the Badlands, confident that it would take her to a favorite hideout of the wild horses she spends much of her time tracking.

She was curious as always to check on the health of the herd and to look for any new foals, the best part of her self-assigned vigil of the horses that wander the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Her hike on a hot and muggy August morning was overshadowed by the knowledge that some of the young horses, possibly among those she hoped to see on this outing, will soon be removed from the park, taken to keep the herd’s size in check to prevent overgrazing, an operation expected to start Monday.

“I hate to see them go,” she said.

The removal of a horse, invariably young, means separation from its band, the familial unit for the horses, and a dramatically different life for a social creature taken from familiar companions and surroundings.

In fact, Craigo plays a key role in a network of volunteers who help to ensure that the horses who are removed from the park find good homes.

She’s one of a number of photographers who closely follow the approximately 150 horses, clustered in 19 bands in the park, chronicling their births, shifting band memberships and other milestones.

The equine drama plays out on Facebook, where the horses have become celebrities on a growing number of fan pages, where hundreds of thousands of viewers from all over the world follow the frolics of foals and the exploits of stallions out to steal a rival’s mares.

Each horse has a name and a pedigree that the interested follower can track on pages including “Wild in North Dakota,” a group that has more than 410,000 followers, and “North Dakota Badlands Horse,” with more than 33,000 followers.

A former librarian, Craigo provides a dedicated pair of eyes for “Wild in North Dakota,” regularly submitting photos and updates of the horses for members — some of whom might just turn out to be willing to take on the responsibility of caring for a wild horse.

“The main thing is to find them homes when they get pulled,” she said, explaining her motivation. “If they see a Facebook post and decide to buy one, that’s awesome. You like to see them get forever homes. My main thing is to just help with that. If we can’t do it, then nobody will do that.”

Craigo, of Fargo, is in her fifth year of following and photographing the park horses, a volunteer effort that requires her to make long solo hikes, often in remote areas far from roads.

“You’ve got to check on them,” she said. “See if anyone’s gone.”

The Badlands’ harsh weather and unforgiving terrain make life unpredictable, even for sure-footed horses that have adapted to the conditions. Four horses didn’t survive the last winter.

Craigo knows each of the park’s 150 horses by name. She maintains a photo gallery of the horses to enable enthusiastic followers to identify the horses they see while visiting the park.

“They become like family,” said Craigo, who drives from Beach to the park two to four times a week to check the horses. “You care about their well-being.”

Before she started following the horses, Craigo was leery even of trekking alone on established hiking trails; now she routinely hikes alone, sometimes venturing 10 or 12 miles, in all seasons.

“It’s not always easy,” she said, adding that she hiked 10 miles last February to see a new foal. Although now thoroughly familiar with the terrain, the ravines and gullies of the badlands can be a maze. “You can get turned around,” she said.

On this hike, Craigo’s eager to check on horses who like to gather in a valley hidden from the loop road that winds through the park.

“Today’s probably a miserable day for them,” she said, referring to the effect of the sweltering heat and humidity on the horses, whose tails were busy swishing away flies.

Craigo wore a baseball-style cap to shield her from the sun, her hair pulled into a ponytail. The monopod she carried to support the long telephoto zoom lens she uses to photograph the horses doubles as a walking stick — and as protection against rattlesnakes or badgers, which can be aggressive if startled near their dens.

As she descended into the flat where horses like to gather in summer, Craigo told about how her mission started. She had learned that a mare had lost a foal, and felt compelled to go see the horse.

After posting her photos, a mutual friend put her in touch with the driving force behind “Wild in North Dakota,” which is a nonprofit organization as well as a Facebook group. The resulting friendship would alter the course of her life.

***

Eileen Norton’s love affair with the horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park began years ago when she was a student at Dickinson State University.

She was captivated by the Badlands and by the horses, which she began following in 1980. Norton, a Minnesota native, left the college after two years and her career took her around the world.

“Back in that day you didn’t see those horses, they were so elusive,” she said. “It made an impression on my brain.”

Now living in southern California, she’s been traveling regularly to the park for decades to watch the horses. Wild in North Dakota was born after the last major roundup, in 2013, resulted in the removal of 103 horses, all apparently sold at auction to buyers who wanted to train and keep them.

Four years earlier, in 2009, four horses were sold to slaughterhouse buyers, something that still haunts Norton.

“That just broke my heart,” she said. “The park has come a very long way in making sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Now, instead of using helicopters to chase the horses, the park service sends out teams that tranquilize selected horses, drag them with sleds, neutralize the sedative, load them onto a trailer and take them to the park’s corral, where they are picked up by owners who buy them via online auction through the General Services Administration.

Adopting a wild horse is a major undertaking. It requires the patience and ability to gentle the horses and help them adapt to a very different way of life in new surroundings, Norton said.

She has bought seven horses, five of which are living, including two pairs of brothers, and keeps them at her ranch.

The transition to a foreign environment is difficult for the horses, especially when they are young and separated from their mothers. “When I bring the horses into my domestic world, problems result. But we have to rise to the occasion.”

Norton spends a lot of time behind the scenes, advising people who have adopted park horses to help make the transition a success.

“They don’t have to be discarded,” she said. “These horses — they’re just so capable of so much.”

The horses are intelligent and friendly, and Norton is working with others to use the horses for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder therapy for veterans.

To help defray costs for horse buyers, Wild in North Dakota raises money by selling T-shirts and calendars that depict the horses.

The following on the “Wild in North Dakota” Facebook page has mushroomed in recent years, and other groups have formed, because people feel connected to the horses and want to keep up with their stories, Norton said.

“I keep it all about the horses,” and avoid entering into controversies, including management of the park herd, she said. “This is a public herd with a lot of followers.”

***

Blake McCann, a wildlife biologist who oversees the management of the horse herd, said the low-stress horse removals have proven themselves to be cost-effective and are easier on the horses.

Ideally, horses wouldn’t have to be removed from the park. That would require an effective birth-control program, a possibility the park has been exploring for years through research.

So far, the findings indicate that a contraceptive administered by dart can be effective in preventing horse pregnancies — if booster doses are administered. Researchers are working on refining the schedule for follow-up immunizations to keep the contraceptive active and effective.

If deemed workable, the contraception program could become part of a new management plan for the horse herd. The current management plan was written 41 years ago, but a new plan is likely several years away, McCann said.

“The important thing is we do it correctly,” he said, referring to the adoption of a new management plan. “It will be a public process when it happens. The sooner we start something, the better.”

McCann expects to remove about 14 horses this time, and the horses should be ready for auction later this month.

“The 14 is based on the number that are at least four months of age that are out there and not more than a year or two of age,” the age range deemed most suitable for adoption.

Veterinarians were consulted to determine the minimum age of the horse, and the experts said those at least four months old are suitable, McCann said. Some horse advocates, however, believe that is too young to be separated from their mothers and the other horses in their band.

“Young horses are easier to place,” he said. “We’ve been really trying to set up an environment that facilitates success.”

So far, since the suspension of the large roundups, almost 100 horses removed from the park have found new homes, with help through an informal partnership with Wild in North Dakota and North Dakota Badlands Horse, also a nonprofit organization, he added.

McCann, who has a doctorate degree and is involved in the park’s wildlife research projects, knows that any decision he makes about the horses will be controversial, especially now that the horses have become Facebook celebrities with followers around the world.

“It’s a hot-button issue for people,” he said. “Social media takes it globally. We get people from Iceland weighing in.”

***

Once down on the sheltered flats, Craigo is delighted to see a bachelor stallion she hadn’t seen for weeks was OK, grazing near a rounded bare butte a few hundred yards away from a gathering of seven bands.

Also nearby, a young stallion and mare and her colt, which the stallion had adopted, were resting contentedly.

“They’re like teen-agers,” Craigo said. “They’re a cute couple.”

The seven bands that had bunched together on top of the butte, roughly 70 horses, or almost half of the park herd, apparently were drawn to the area by the sweat clover and breeze the higher elevation offered, good for cooling off and keeping the biting flies away.

“They know where to go,” she said. “They’ve got their routine. They live in a very harsh environment, but they know how to survive.”

The following day was even more eventful. She discovered the birth of a new foal, which she posted on her own Facebook page, “Dakota Grown Photos” and reposted in “Wild in North Dakota.” Soon, the internet was abuzz with the joyful news.

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