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Published December 05, 2014, 10:26 AM

Nokota horse conservancy facing dispersal

Frank Kuntz awakens every morning to the reality that 280 living creatures depend upon him for food, water and protection. It’s a responsibility at once terrifying if it went wrong, and profoundly rewarding if it went right.

By: Lauren Donavan , Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune

RURAL LINTON, N.D. — Frank Kuntz awakens every morning to the reality that 280 living creatures depend upon him for food, water and protection.

It’s a responsibility at once terrifying if it went wrong, and profoundly rewarding if it went right.

Kuntz, 63, is the man whose face and name are inextricably entwined with the Nokota, North Dakota’s honorary equine since a Legislative act in 1993. It’s a breed that breeds passion and controversy in equal measure among those who believe in its storied history and those who dispute it.

Kuntz, along with his brother, Leo Kuntz, has devoted three decades to preserving the horses, buying them over the years from roundups at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

If the lineage of the horses is disputed by some who say they are merely early ranch strays, the fact they became park “residents” when the boundary fence was constructed in the 1940s is not.

Disputed heritage

The Kuntzes maintain they have always believed the horses are unique descendants of horses belonging to the Lakota of the 1800s and early-day ranchers. They say those horses arrived in the Badlands country when the Marquis de Mores purchased 250 of them from the Fort Buford Trading Post after the surrender of Sitting Bull, who relinquished his guns, his horses and his freedom to white soldiers there in 1881.

De Mores sold some of the Lakota mares to the owner of the historic HT Ranch near Amidon in 1884, and it was horses bred at that ranch that were the original Nokotas, the brothers say.

When horses with a strong square body, big bones, sturdy hooves and low-set tail showed up at park auctions, the Kuntzes took them home. Their goal was to sort them off by selection from park horses genetically influenced by the quarter horse, shire and Arabian stallions introduced into the park over the years.

“That old line is its own type, developed by nature and their environment. There was a difference,” says Frank Kuntz, a disabled Vietnam veteran and weathered outdoorsman.

As the brothers’ preservation herd grew in size, so did everything else, especially the costs for rented pasture, feed and veterinarian care.

A flailing nonprofit

The nonprofit Nokota Horse Conservancy was formed in 1999 to raise money and support for the horses.

Kuntz’s wife, Shelly Hauge, is director of the conservancy and manages its daily business from a small office on Linton’s Main Street.

It is primarily her job — among other administrative tasks such as writing the newsletter, promoting merchandise and corresponding with potential buyers — to watch money come in and out. These days, precious little is going either direction.

“Our head is above water, but we’re flailing. It’s not easy,” she says.

Expenses for the 100 horses owned by the conservancy come to about $150,000 a year. Today, they have $20,000 in the bank and Frank Kuntz, who’s given a stipend to cover expenses such as land rent, fuel and hay production has not been paid in three months.

For now, they’re dependent on the goodwill of the neighboring landowner whose land rent is also unpaid for now.

“He’s been decent in letting the horses be out there,” says Kuntz, adding he is worried. “Once you start getting behind, you can go under.”

They’ve cut back drastically on foaling, becoming more selective and only four newborns were born this spring in the conservancy herd with three coming now.

Donations to the nonprofit have trailed away since the economic recession of 2008. Last year, for the first time, the conservancy board talked with an attorney about the details involved in dissolution, if worse comes to worst.

The dreaded “D” word for dispersal has been discussed.

The couple and the conservancy board of directors will do all they can to head that off, and Kuntz has not given up on the larger dream of buying land to create a sanctuary for the Nokota.

“There are only about 700 or fewer of these horses left in the world. The Northern Plains Natives picked the strongest of the strongest, and it’s a good, tough, hardy horse,” he says. “I always say I liked them for the strong body and bones, but I grew to love them for their brains and intelligence.”

Crowd funding

The Nokota Horse Conservancy has turned to the Internet, using a crowd funding platform on the website Indiegogo.com to raise the money. So far, people have contributed $5,000, a long ways off the mark.

“It’s so humbling to ask for help,” Hauge says. “But it’s not for us, it’s for the living history of these horses. We don’t want to let it slip away.”

Kuntz said he’s had to make choices in his life, choices that have brought him some things and caused him to lose others.

“These horses are not something you make money at,” he says. “But you make the choice. The land will always be here, but horses might not be. They have always been my choice, because it’s the right thing to do.”

More information is available at the Nokota Horse Conservancy website and at Indiegogo.com.

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