WATFORD CITY A small herd of longhorn cattle roam freely in Theodore Roosevelt National Park-North Unit. The 10 steers boast the long horns from which they received their name and distinctive coloring that is unique to the breed. But why are they in the park?
The answer is, they represent some of the earliest visitors to the Badlands region. Thousands of longhorns were pushed by tireless cowboys from Texas to western North Dakota from 1884 to 1895. They utilized the Long X Trail, named after the Texas ranch that carried the famous brand.
"They are a cultural demonstration herd," said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation for T.R. National Park. "The reason they are there is that, at one point, there was a cattle trail that went from Texas to the plains of western North Dakota. It went through what is now the park. A lot of those cattle that were driven up here were longhorns."
Longhorn cattle are named for their distinctive headgear and often have unusual coloring that distinguishes them from most other breeds.
The longhorns currently in the park's North Unit were purchased about four years ago from Grant Kohrs National Historic Site near Deer Lodge, Mont. They replaced an aging group of longhorns that previously roamed the park, most often along flatland adjacent to the Little Missouri river.
Longhorns were once highly prized for their eating quality. The long cattle drives from Texas were for the purpose of fattening up the cattle on the northern range before selling them. Today they are an unusual site. Visitors to the park fortunate enough to see the longhorns are often quite struck by their trademark headgear and remarkable coloring.
"They are interesting to look at with those big horns," said Andes.
The first longhorns moved into the region came up from Texas in 1884. The idea was spawned by brothers William and George Reynolds. The first cattle drive involved 4,000 Texas longhorns. In following years the Reynolds were bringing north as many as three herds a year. Cowboys would be in the saddle for four to five months to accomplish the task.
A trail marker along the North Unit's auto tour route helps tell the tale of the Long X trail. The longhorns bring the tale to life. About a half mile south of the park's entrance is the Long X Bridge, a river crossing point on the Long X trail and one of several landmarks in the area that bears the Long X name.
One of the most historic cattle ranches in McKenzie County was located on Squaw Creek southwest of Watford City. The Reynolds brothers purchased the land from former sheep ranchers and established their North Dakota headquarters at that location.
Texas longhorn cattle were descendents of cattle originally brought to North America by the Spaniards. It is believed that "feral" longhorns roamed the southwest for nearly 200 years before some enterprising Texans began domesticating them. By 1927 though, the breed was nearly extinct. It took an enthusiastic effort from the U.S. Forest Service to resurrect the breed.
Today Texas longhorns are not only raised as a curiosity but also as a beef stock. Primarily however, many Texas ranchers keep a few longhorns to remind them of their link to Texas history. Fortunately, longhorns have emerged as a very hearty breed that do well on the open range in a variety of weather conditions.
"They have no problem on the range during the summertime in the North Unit. During the summer they just eat grass and the grass is pretty lush this year," said Andes. "During the winter we have them in a wildlife handling facility where we feed them hay."
In addition to driving cattle from Texas to North Dakota, the Reynolds operation also brought horses and cowboys this state. More than 3,000 horses were brought to North Dakota and numerous McKenzie County residents trace their ancestry back to Long X cowboys.