How did Texas longhorn cattle end up in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
Longhorn cattle have been grazing in the north unit of the park since 1967. Here's the story of how they got there.
WATFORD CITY, N.D. — A dozen longhorn steers can be seen grazing leisurely in their favorite pasture on a sagebrush flat visible from the scenic drive in the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The park keeps the longhorn cattle as a vestige of the thousands of longhorns that were driven from Texas to the open range in western Dakota Territory in the 1870s and 1880s after the once-enormous buffalo herds had been hunted to the brink of extinction.
Their presence — now in question in light of the park’s announced preference for removing all cattle and horses — is owed to a combination of history and politics.
The longhorns have grazed the north unit since 1967 to depict the “historical scene” of the open-range ranching era during the time Theodore Roosevelt ranched and hunted in the Little Missouri Badlands in the 1880s.
Roosevelt himself preferred shorthorn cattle, which he bought in Minnesota, but the longhorns, with their signature set of horns spanning up to seven feet wide, bony frames and spindly legs, were the area’s dominant cattle breed at the time.
The park’s north unit, in fact, once was the site of the immense Long X Ranch, stocked with thousands of longhorns that were driven up from Texas along the Long X Trail, which ran through the north unit.
The longhorns have been kept, along with the wild horses that roam the park’s south unit, as “demonstration herds” to depict the “historical scene” from Roosevelt’s time.
At its height, the Long X Ranch had 11,000 longhorns, a colorful herd of cattle with assorted red, black and mottled coats and their flamboyant horns.
“Imagine 11,000 of those longhorns out there,” said Mike Kopp, a photographer and blogger from Wilton who has explored the history of longhorns and the park herd. “It would have been quite a show of color.”
Texas cowboys who came north in search of fresh pastures favored the longhorns because they were plentiful — and free for the taking on the Texas range, remnants of herds introduced by the Spanish in the 1600s.
“They were readily available because they ran wild in western Texas” and developed hardiness during two centuries of roaming, Kopp said.
On the other hand, he added, “They weren’t favored by butchers.” The longhorns’ gaunt, bony builds inspired the saying that they provided “five pounds of hamburger and five hundred pounds of bone and horn.”
During the 1880s, however, longhorns dominated the pastures surrounding badlands ranching towns, including Medora and Watford City.
The Reynolds brothers of Texas, who founded the Long X Ranch, were the first to drive cattle up to grazing lands in the Watford City area, moving a “monster herd” from the Rio Grande to the Little Missouri, guided by compass as they made their way in a trek that started in early spring and concluded in September 1884.
The brothers bought a former sheep ranch whose owners lost their herd after vigilantes in pursuit of horse thieves burned their pasture, and the sheep perished the following winter, forcing them to sell.
The first Texas longhorns reached northern Dakota Territory in 1876, when a herd of 2,500 was driven north.
Most of the Texas cattle were 2-year-old steers and were called “trailers” because of their tendency to wander back and forth as they crossed the prairies.
“After traveling all the way from Texas to North Dakota they seemed to develop a nervous habit of aimless roaming, which was not excelled even by the wolves,” wrote George Shafer, an early McKenzie County rancher. “Particularly were they inclined to follow buffalo trails, for if they once struck a trail across the prairie, there was no rest, day or night, until they found its destination.”
After making the long trip from Texas, the longhorns were thin and scrawny when they arrived on the northern Dakota range. After two years of grazing, they developed into “fine, large animals that always brought first class prices on the Chicago markets,” Shafer wrote.
The long cattle drives pioneered by the Reynolds brothers and a “daring band of Texas cowboys” continued every year until 1897, allowing ranches in the area to restock annually.
By the late 1880s, millions of cattle from Texas and other areas — many of them longhorns — were being fattened on western Dakota grasslands. But by the late 1880s, conditions on the overstocked range were deteriorating, setting the stage for a disaster that would strike a severe blow to the booming cattle industry, causing Roosevelt and many other ranchers to abandon stock raising.
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The idea to have longhorns grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park to commemorate the open range ranching era originated in the early 1960s.
The National Park Service considered a proposal to establish what would be called Longhorn Ranch at the site of the former Peaceful Valley Ranch in the south unit, once a working ranch and the original park headquarters.
A plan drafted in 1961 touted the Longhorn Ranch as a way to fill a “long-felt need to interpret the story of the open range cattle industry on the Northern Plains.” The plan noted that the Elkhorn Ranch site, a small unit of the park that once served as the center of Roosevelt’s ranching operations, was remote and accessible on unimproved, gravel roads.
The Longhorn Ranch vision was to create a “typical ranch” that could be operated by a rancher under a concession permit and stocked with 10 or 12 longhorns that would graze inside a 300-acre, fenced pasture.
As planning evolved, the proposed ranch site shifted to the 218-acre Elkhorn Ranch site, 30 miles north of Medora, where a “full-blown living history site" was envisioned in a 1963 master plan.
The new plan called for a working herd of longhorn cattle, blacksmith demonstrations, motel, service station, restaurants, horse livery and 200-site campground. But that ambitious plan was streamlined by the 1970s, with almost no development of the Elkhorn site, with the possible exception of reconstruction of Roosevelt’s ranch house.
Interest in having longhorns in the park persisted, however. One proponent was Hal Davies, the editor of the Minot Daily News, according to a 1986 history of the park, “On the Open Margin” by David Harmon.
Another influential champion of keeping longhorns in the park was Sen. Milton Young, R-N.D. According to minutes of a 1966 park staff meeting, someone suggested the north unit could accommodate the cattle.
“If we do not accept the longhorn cattle, appropriates might be cut,” someone said at the meeting, according to Harmon. Six months later, in 1967, the park brought in half a dozen longhorns from the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska — the nucleus of the herd that remains today.
“While it cannot be said that the influence of Davies and Young caused the introduction of longhorns to Theodore Roosevelt (National Park), certainly political considerations played a part in the decision,” Harmon wrote.
The longhorns have the run of the north unit, but they mostly graze on a 750-acre sagebrush flat on the Little Missouri River near the buffalo corral.
The longhorns coexist peacefully with the bison that roam the north unit, said Kopp, who has written about the longhorns on the Beautiful Badlands blog . In 2017, while recording a video of the longhorns grazing, the cattle were joined by a band of buffalo that wandered through the pasture to drink from the river.
“Typically, they don’t mingle like that,” Kopp said, adding that the longhorns graze the taller grass and avoid hilly terrain.
The longhorns are “readily visible from the scenic drive and have become a favorite of visitors, providing some of the atmosphere of the open range,” Harmon wrote.
Since the park’s designation shifted from a memorial park to a national park in 1978, the emphasis has switched from historical preservation to conservation.
As a result, Harmon wrote, it was questioned whether the cattle and horses, which were "exotic to the Badlands," conflict with National Park Service policies on ecosystem management in natural areas.
For decades, the park tolerated the longhorns and horses because of their historical significance.
The status of the herds tipped decisively, however, when park officials recently announced their preference would be to gradually remove the horses and cattle — proposed action that provoked strong backlash from the public and elected officials.
A resolution urging the park to keep the horses and longhorns is moving through the North Dakota Legislature with broad support, and Gov. Doug Burgum has offered to provide state expertise and resources to help keep the herds in the park.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who serves on the committee that oversees the parks, assembled a meeting of legislative leaders, Burgum and Attorney General Drew Wrigley, who met with the head of the park service and park superintendent to press the case for keeping the longhorns and horses, both popular draws for the park.
Park officials are expected to release their plan for the horses and cattle this spring, and a new round of public comments will follow.
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The summer of 1886 was dry in western Dakota Territory, exacerbating poor range conditions caused by overgrazing as thousands of cattle were moved onto the northern range.
Roosevelt recognized the signs of impending disaster, writing in the fall of 1886 that “it is merely a question of time as to when a winter will come that will understock the ranges by the summary process of killing off about half of all the cattle throughout the North-west.”
Unfamiliar with the severity of Northern Plains winters, Texas ranchers confronting extreme drought drove still more herds to the Dakota ranges.
The dry summer, which weakened cattle, was followed by a harsh winter, with subzero cold and punishing blizzards. And just as Roosevelt predicted, cattle died by the tens of thousands — with ranchers suffering losses of up to 90% of their herds.
After suffering large losses that winter, the Long X Ranch was sold to investors from Boston, but poor management sank the operation, Shafer wrote.
The popularity of longhorns, well adapted to drought and conditions in a much warmer climate, appears to have faded in Dakota Territory following the killer winter of 1886-87, said Doug Ellison, proprietor of Western Edge Books in Medora and a historian of the region.
Large-scale cattle ranching during the open range era provided the foundation of the area’s economy, and longhorns were “definitely an important part of our range history, nearly as important as the horses,” he said. “I think they were kind of the vanguard of the industry here. Eventually, they were replaced by some of the more hardy stock.”