The early morning silence was hypnotizing, as I quietly stalked the horses from a safe distance to find a clear view of the small herd. Standing still with camera in hand, the only sounds I heard were the rapid clicks of the camera’s shutter. This went on for a couple hours. That is, until I heard the deep and alarmingly close bellow of a bison.
One hundred days into our travels and 4520 towing miles later, one week ago Vivian and I completed our west-by-northwest route from Chokoloskee, Florida to Glacier National Park, Montana. We left the Rocky Mountains after having visited nine national parks beginning in New Mexico. Now in North Dakota, we were several hundred miles into our east-by-southeast route. On the morning of July 27, I was photographing wildlife in the badlands within National Park #10.
The legacies of conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt are significant and far reaching. Every time a President designates a National Monument, we have Roosevelt to thank for the 1906 American Antiquities Act. The comeback of the Plains Bison from near extinction is owed to President Roosevelt. As president, he was directly responsible for adding 230 million acres of protected public lands, including five national parks. There I stood in Theodore Roosevelt National Park photographing a herd of wild horses that are also in some way associated with the park’s eponym and his legacy.
I carefully walked toward the herd while examining my surroundings. Way too early for the drive-by tourists, I was alone with the wild horses. Meet equus caballus, the modern horse of North America. One of the mares, the largest of the group stood on a high hill overlooking the herd while giving me the eye. For the longest time, she did not move and neither did I. That’s fine, I can wait. The others paid no attention to me as they grazed casually. Eventually, the mare relaxed and went back to the calm demeanor of grazing. That’s all I needed – I was in.
During the modern ranching era, of which Roosevelt was a part, feral horses were considered a nuisance and cattlemen worked to exterminate them throughout the west. Efforts to preserve them ensued and in 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandated their protection and named them a “national heritage species”. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few where free-roaming horses live and are part of the legacy leftover by Roosevelt’s open range ranching era.
The small herd of horses gave me a gift in the form of a day-old filly and the mare she identified as mom. Almost entirely, my attention was drawn to the young horse with its long lanky legs barely able to keep her upright as she sprang back and forth in fits of energy, never straying more than a few horse lengths from mom. After short periods of activity, the young one would find a nice spot to lay down for a spell. Her watchful mom never let her out of her sight, and she most certainly was aware of the coyote that stalked the herd from a higher point for a short time that I could see.
For many years, the National Park Service attempted to remove all horses from the park. In 1970, the park changed its policy to recognize the horse as part of its history, yet another Roosevelt legacy. Horse management rather than removal is the park’s current approach. Occasionally, the park rounds up a small number of horses and takes them to public auction. Current management has evolved and includes contraception, genetic research, and low-stress capture techniques.
It wasn’t until after the fact when I began researching the horses that I learned about the North Dakota Badlands Horse, a nonprofit organization that monitors the herds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. From their website, I found the link “2021 Foals” and discovered photographs of newborns. I was so delighted to find a picture with information on the mare and filly I had spent two hours photographing. The mare’s distinct markings made it easy for me to identify her. From the photograph description, I learned her name and her filly’s name, Dolly and Oakley, respectively. Oakley’s birth date was also provided, July 26, one day before I met her and Dolly. I also learned Oakley’s daddy’s name is Flax, the stallion who appears in a few of my photographs.
From last year’s visit to Custer State Park, I recognized the loud snorts and grumbles that emanate from North America’s largest land mammal. So, when I heard the distinct bellowing of a male bison that came from the other side of a hill where the horses were grazing, I suspected there was more than one bison nearby. Bison run in herds, and I did not want to find myself in the middle. The horses had already begun to move further away, cueing me to leave as well.
Within his namesake park, perhaps the most direct evidence of Roosevelt’s legacy is the extremely large bison herd that interrupted my photo shoot with the horses. The Park is a relatively small patch of land that is part of the Plains Bison’s rich grassland once extending from Canada to Mexico. When you visit a park and see bison in great numbers, you cannot help but think about their comeback from a few hundred shy of total extinction. Among many ways humans caused the bison’s near extinction was the re-introduction of the horse into North America. Horses compete with bison for grazing, but it was the use of the horse for hunting by the Plains Indians that caused a much greater devastation to bison.
But that was then, and this is now. The North American wild horse is a popular symbol of freedom, bravery, determination, and beauty. And for that, I am privileged to have spent time photographing them and observing their equine culture for a short time. After spending two hours with Flax and his harem, Dolly and Oakley, it was time for me and the horses to move out of the way and allow the bison its space. The horse and the bison co-exist in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the bison is the landlord. The unnamed bison, the keepers of the grasslands. Thank you, President Roosevelt.
Here are a few more images from our time at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.