A group dedicated to the preservation of the iconic Nokota horse is under pressure from the prolonged drought, which has pushed hay prices to unaffordable levels.
The Nokota Horse Conservancy says it is in urgent need of support to pay for hay, summer pasture leases and operating expenses.
The Nokota is the official state horse of North Dakota. Those who run the conservancy fear that dwindling hay supplies could ultimately force the dispersal of a herd considered crucial for the breed’s long-term survival.
Nokota horses are the last survivors of the Northern Plains mustangs.
Originating in the badlands of North Dakota, they are a rare strain of mustang tracing its heritage to the Lakota horses that once carried the great chief Sitting Bull.
The Nokota horse’s bloodlines are traceable to early North Dakota ranch horses and Indian ponies that the US Government confiscated from the Lakota people in 1881.
With the enclosure of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the 1950s, many of these wild horses were unintentionally fenced in.
Threatened first by crossbreeding and later with removal by the National Park Service, these horses began to rapidly disappear, often to slaughterhouses.
Two brothers, Leo and Frank Kuntz, of Linton, North Dakota, tried to protect the unique strain of mustangs by purchasing as many of the horses as they could from the National Park during roundups and sales.
They dubbed the breed Nokotas, a tribute to the North Dakota badlands that they call home.
In 1986, the Kuntz brothers joined forces with Dr Castle McLaughlin, a graduate student and park ranger who researched the horses for the National Park Service.
Together, they began a breed registry and breeding program, and began lobbying for the breed’s protection and preservation. In 1993, Nokotas were designated the North Dakota Honorary State Equine.
Today, the last surviving herd of nearly 500 wild and semi-wild Nokota horses lives on the Kuntz Brothers’ ranch where their care now requires full-time attention to ensure that the breed survives.
The Nokota Horse Conservancy, a non-profit group formed in 1999, is manned entirely by volunteers, raising awareness about the breed’s unique place in American history, and raising funds to support the last surviving herd.
However, the trust has been hit by high hay prices triggered by a widespread drought, and a drop in donations caused by the sluggish American economy.
The conservancy owns 118 horses, representing the rarest of these old bloodlines.
In their private herds, Frank and Leo each own about 175 additional horses.
All three herds, which form the breeding nucleus of the Nokota, are endangered.
Frank Kuntz said: “These horses are wonderful, living representatives of a history that has often been tragic. They deserve the right to have a future.”
The executive director of the Nokota Horse Conservancy, Shelly Hauge, told local media: “This is one of the most difficult situations we’ve been in since the formation of the conservancy.
“While it’s never been easy, it hasn’t been the struggle it’s been this year.”
To learn more about the Nokota breed or to help with a donation, visit http://nokotahorse.org/cms