NORTH DAKOTA (KXNET) — The wild horse is a symbol of freedom, roaming for generations across the open plains. But, you can’t just see them anywhere, anymore. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few national parks where visitors can observe free-roaming horses.

But a number of those horses or maybe all of them could be at risk of being removed.

For our ongoing series related to the park’s horses, reporter Adrienne Oglesby met with Dr. Gus Cothran to learn what is really at stake for the horse’s survival.

The plan at Theodore Roosevelt National Park has been said to either reduce the current herd of 185 to between 35 and 60 horses or eliminate them all.

According to Dr. Cothran that will not work in the long run.

“Based upon population genetics conservation genetics theory that number, is going to be the minimum number, is going to be about 150 to 200 adults animals, and the numbers based upon trying to reduce the rates of loss of genetic diversity in the population to less than 1% per generation,” said Dr. Cothran.

Understood Doctor, but what is the risk factor here if the herd is reduced drastically?

“A herd that size is going to experience a higher rate of loss of their variability if they are maintained at that size over several generations, and there is no input of animals from outside the population,” said Dr. Cothran.

Dr. Cothran says separating horses from their families and social structures have always been risky.

When horses are stressed they tend to lose weight, become aggressive, and may even fall into a state of depression.

“Certainly it’s going to probably impact their feeling of well-being. It might affect their feeding ability, probably increase the aggression among individuals and of the population,” he said. 

The park’s site claims with their new methods for herd management, that low-stress capture techniques are considered. Is low-stress management going to be looked at in this case? 

As we make our way to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, some questions need to be answered:

  • Will the horses be maintained at such a low number?
  • How will family groups be broken up?
  • And truthfully what are the reasons and obligations of the park to rid the horses in the first place?

Dr. Cothran says adding about two animals from elsewhere to the smaller population could possibly restore genetic variation.

KX News will be seeking these answers and more. This is an ongoing story.