Badlands new home for wild herd

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INTERIOR, S.D. - From the heat of Arizona to the Pine Ridge Reservation is quite a long trip for 31 wild horses who will spend the rest of their lives in comfort and tranquility on more than 2,000 acres of land here.

The historic horses, rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management, are part of a herd that numbers more than 70, but this particular group was getting into a little trouble by feasting in a farmer's alfalfa field.

The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros adopted the horses from near Gila Bend on the Painted Rock Herd Area. Genetic testing proves this group of horses is related to the Akhal Teke. This breed comes from the Asian steppes. The horses also are related to the Spanish stock that first stepped foot in North America in the 1500s.

The herd increased from 31 to 39 when eight foals were born. The entire herd was turned out to pasture June 8, after three weeks in corrals at the Alan and Asta Amiotte Ranch where the herd will remain.

"It makes you want to cry, because you know they are free," said Karen Sussman, president the society. She watched as the herd found the opening into the pasture and, with dust and tails flying, the 38 galloped their way to their new home.

A herd of more than 70 wild horses already roam the Amiotte ranch, but the two herds will not merge so there will be no genetic transfer. The importance of this herd is that the genetics will be maintained to preserve the historic value of the horse, Sussman said.

The Gila horses, as they are called, carry the dun color pattern that resembles primitive horses that were domesticated 6,000 years ago. The dun color varies in tint on each of the horses although the similarity is immediately obvious. Dun also means the horse will carry a stripe down its back, called the dorsal stripe, and the legs are mottled resembling zebra stripes.

"From the combined evidence involving the low variability of the herd, the lack of recent genetic introduction into the herd and the observed genetic relationship between the Cerbat herd to the Painted Rock herd, and their geographical distance from each other, one would have to assume that these wild horses are descendants of the old Spanish horse," said Dr. E. Gus Cothran, geneticist from the University of Kentucky.

The Cerbat wild horse is located in Kingman, Ariz., in the western part of the state, while the Painted Rock or Gila herd is in the central portion. The Cerbat show relationships to the Iberian horses of Spain.

A year ago the first herd was released onto the Amiotte Ranch by the society. The 5,000 acres of land in the Badlands can support a herd of approximately 500 head, Sussman and Amiotte said.

"Returning the wild horses to the Lakota people is very spiritual," Sussman said.

The society plans to build a National Wild Horse and Burro Heritage Center on the property and open the area to the general public to observe the horses. The center is set for construction in 2001. While education about the horse is important, information will be available about the relationship between the horse and the American Indian.

National universities will conduct research on the wild horses, the vegetation and archaeological studies, Sussman said.

Visitors will be able to stay at the ranch and take in the full experience of not only the Badlands, but that of the social aspects of the wild horse herds.

At one time there were 303 wild horse areas, now there are only 186, Sussman said. The goal of the society is to preserve the genetics of the wild horse herds and the population of wild horses.

The other herd at the Amiotte ranch is referred to as the White Sand herd. It took 10 years to round up those 70 plus horses. The Gila herd was rounded up in October 1999, held by the BLM until early spring and then transported to Pine Ridge.

The Amiotte Ranch is south of Interior on Highway 44. The public is invited to tour the area to view the wild horses.