By Sabrina Hornung
Birgit Pruess is a biologist with a Ph.D. in Biology, originally from Germany. She has lived in Fargo since the early 90s, taking on a position at NDSU.
Along with being a scientist she is also an artist and in 2014 she made her first trip to Theodore Roosevelt State Park (TRNP), with her parents, who were visiting from Germany to celebrate her 50th birthday.
Since then she found herself coming back, particularly drawn to the wild horses. In fact, she developed a love of photography while photographing the wild horses in the park. She joined a number of facebook groups of like-minded individuals who also loved the wild horse herds. She learned the names of the horses and observed their behavior during her visits out west.
She appreciated the uniqueness of the horses, and noted they were much easier to identify due to their coloring than, say, the bison herds.
“I was thinking about maybe joining the team of scientists, but I thought they only have so many on the team, and there isn't really anything I can bring in expertise that they don't already have, and they probably won't take me just for curious… Then I thought I could maybe get into wild horse genetics at some point and start out with writing a book for the general public as a way to raise awareness and get the photos among people.”
In the Fall of 2021 she compiled her photos and research and started to work on her book project, “Free in TRNP.” She provides not only information on the horses themselves, but also insights into the environment surrounding them, the plants, the flowers.
Her first book talk/exhibition of her photos was at the Spirit Room last summer. Now she sees her work as a call for action: Theodore Roosevelt National Park is considering phasing out the herd.
“It’s simple and complex both at the same time. I mean, I'm definitely opposed to it. I'm also wondering what on earth is the real reason for the removal? Because there isn't really any logical one. And then I mean, what is the best way to prevent that? I'm working on all sorts of problems with that respect. And one thing I noticed is that even though this has been going on since last summer, lots of people don't know about it.” Pruess said.
She thinks that the best thing that can be done is public engagement. In fact the park is allowing public comment until January 31 in writing or through their website. Pruess also noted that she reached out to a number of legislators.
“What I'm hearing is that yeah, they're talking about it. Everybody wants to keep them, but they're not really sure what to do about it either. It's the state legislature, right? I mean, the federal park is not under their jurisdiction, so they can’t really give them orders, but they could let them know somehow that the state doesn't support the idea of removing the horses.” said Pruess.
“There’s a cultural and historical component, obviously, I mean for every two footprints that somebody left coming out West, there were four hoof prints. We really wouldn't be where we are and who we are today without horses, Without mustang horses, not just any horses, so this push about getting rid of all the mustangs, I don't know what's the point behind reducing the number.”
When contacted, spokespeople from Theodore Roosevelt National Park offered no comment and directed us to their website nps.org.
How is the park managing the herd?
According to their December “Livestock Plan Scoping Newsletter,” there are currently three alternatives regarding the park’s management of the herd.
Alternative A would be no action, which is handled under the 1978 EA and 1970 Management Plan. Currently there are 200 horses living in the South Unit of TRNP. Population is maintained by park officials and horses are handled, sold or auctioned off.
Alternative B would be facilitating a swift reduction of the herd to zero, which would be a two year process.
Alternative C would be a phased out approach to reducing the herd to zero. In both B and C phrases, the tribes would get first call on the mustangs.
Wait…how does the park plan on phasing out the herd?
According to their website, One method of herd reduction is temporary birth control, another method is “low stress herding” which also includes corral trapping. The corral traps are placed in areas that the horses are known to linger often baiting them with mineral blocks or water. Tranquilizer darts are often used to sedate animals, though according to the website this technique is being re-evaluated in consideration of the safety of the animals.
Genetic research is also being conducted utilizing hair samples. According to nps.gov, “Molecular data is used to evaluate the genetic diversity, ancestry, and demography of the herd to inform management decisions.”
There’s also an adoption program which is managed via a website managed by the federal government. Before anyone is allowed to bid on these animals, a statement of intent needs to be signed. They are notified that the horses are wild, thus untrained and need to be guaranteed that they have adequate space and will be taken care of.
We reached out to the Medora foundation and spoke to Kaelee Wallace, their marketing manager.
“We do not have the expertise to comment on the management of the herd. And nor do we wish to speak to the origin of the animals. But we know from the business that we're in, which is tourism and welcoming guests, we hear often that the bison and the horses in the National Park are a guest favorite. So we know that that's a tourism drive and helps not just the businesses and attractions that the Theodore Roosevelt-Medora Foundation owns and operates but really the tourism landscape of Medora as a whole.”
Wallace went on to say, “We have fielded a handful of calls, both on the media side but then specifically from our customers as well as our donor base, because the horses mean so much to so many people and specifically we have some really wonderful donors who have spent a lot of time in the National Park capturing images of the horses and we hear from our people that they're very special to them. And I know that that echoes not just through the customers and donors that have reached out to us but through the larger population of visitors to Medora.”
Please share your comments no later than January 31, 2023, online through the PEPC website at: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/LP
Or in writing to:
Theodore Roosevelt National Park PO Box 7
Medora, ND 58645
Dr. Birgit Pruess’s book is available at:
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