Judge Won’t Let Presidential Candidate Drive His Horses Into Yellowstone

Candidate using animals in push to dramatically expand the U.S. House

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Nov 02, 2023

Walter Clapp, a Republican candidate for president, poses for a photo at the Cody Stampede Rodeo Grounds in August. Clapp has made his horse-drawn wagon an integral part of his longshot bid for the presidency. (Courtesy photo from Walter Clapp)

By CJ Baker

Special to the Wyoming Truth

If a longshot presidential candidate wants to campaign in Yellowstone National Park, he’ll have to do it without his horse-drawn wagon, a federal judge ruled.

Walter Clapp, a Montana attorney, soon-to-be Wyoming resident and Republican candidate for president, sued federal officials in July after they refused to allow his two-horse team on Yellowstone’s roads. The park prohibits horses in its developed areas, and Clapp contends the rules violate his First Amendment rights.

The team of horses is a part of his campaign message, Clapp wrote in his suit, and being denied the opportunity to drive the animals through Yellowstone “causes me and our [nation] irreparable harm.”

However, U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson of Cheyenne didn’t see it that way. In an Oct. 23 order, the judge said Clapp failed to show the National Park Service was infringing on his freedom of speech. If the horses are sending a message, it’s not clear what the message is, Johnson wrote.

Clapp “does not cite any legal authority and the court finds none to recognize a horse, or any animal, as ‘speech’ or ‘content,’” Johnson wrote. He denied the candidate’s request to issue a preliminary injunction, noting Yellowstone officials gave Clapp the opportunity to campaign without his horses.

Presidential candidate Walter Clapp brought his team of horses to Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance, but park rules prevented them from riding in. A judge recently declined to force the National Park Service to admit the animals. (Courtesy photo from Walter Clapp)

“Asking the plaintiff to rein in his expectations for his venture through the park is not irreparable injury,” Johnson wrote, perhaps with pun intended.

However, Clapp told the Wyoming Truth he still wants to bring his team into Yellowstone or another national park. And regardless of whether his presidential bid catches on, he said he’s committed to educating others about the issue at the center of his campaign: a dramatic expansion of the U.S. House of Representatives.

‘Uncap the House’

On Clapp’s campaign site, the 35-year-old said he jumped into the presidential race because “he would rather not be sitting on the couch in 2024 while two old farts set our country on fire with their BS.”

His platform includes securing the border with technology, ending the war on drugs, harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and building jobs in a new underground interstate tunnel system. But Clapp’s primary aim is to “uncap the House.”

The first proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which was never ratified — called for states to receive one representative for every 50,000 people. Under that formula, the House would now boast more than 6,600 members instead of 435. While it might sound unwieldy, Clapp contends that having thousands or even tens of thousands of lawmakers would lead to better representation, more scrutiny of the ever-growing federal bureaucracy and, ultimately, less spending.

Clapp told the Wyoming Truth on Monday that his hope is to give the American people more representation, get rid of burdensome regulations and “get back on the path of finding out what we have in common, as opposed to focusing on just what separates us.”

He argues that his horse team and wagon draws attention to the first proposed amendment; the traditional transportation “requires people [to] slow down and look to our founding,” when everyone drove horses, he wrote in his complaint.

However, federal officials see the horses as an issue of safety rather than free speech.

Officials in Yellowstone National Park were willing to let Walter Clapp campaign with his wagon in the park, but not with his horses, as park rules prohibit the animals in developed areas. (Courtesy photo from Walter Clapp via court records)

“Those with knowledge of the traffic issues in [Yellowstone] during the summer could easily imagine nothing more frustrating than a man riding a horse and wagon, thereby effectively backing up traffic for miles,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jasmine Peters wrote in a response. “To say Plaintiff’s campaign ploy would create a safety issue is a wild understatement.”

In his initial July email to park officials, Clapp said he was sure his slow pace would bring traffic concerns, but “I promise I aim to impede traffic as little as possible, as I do not want tourists angry at me, either.”

The Park Service permitted Clapp to campaign at designated “First Amendment areas” at Roosevelt Arch, Canyon Village, Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful with his wagon (if properly secured), a dog, up to three assistants and a guitar-playing musician (if unamplified). But the horses needed to stay in their trailer.

Federal pushback

On July 17, the day before Clapp was to begin his Yellowstone trek, the park’s revenue and fee business manager met with the candidate at a campground north of the park to discuss his permit. Clapp mentioned that his horses had escaped the campground’s corral “and he had spent half the day trying to catch his two horses,” park manager Ken Watson recalled in an affidavit.

Watson appeared to allude to the incident in a subsequent letter to Clapp, reiterating that the ban on horses in developed areas “is there for the benefit of public safety and protection of park resources, including staff who may have to assist in rounding up loose stock.”

Clapp ultimately skipped the park and filed suit on July 28.

“The restrictions are not rational,” he wrote, saying the park has made exceptions in the past and allows horses if they’re handled by concessionaires or are service animals.

“When did the rights of the disabled supersede the rights under the 1st Amendment?” Clapp wrote in part.

In her response, Peters said Clapp had failed to meet any of the factors required for a preliminary injunction and she recently described his arguments as “erratic.”

Johnson ruled last week that, “The majority of Mr. Clapp’s assertions rest on conclusory statements, elaborate metaphor and incorrect legal arguments, thereby lacking the requisite factual and legal assertion necessary to carry the burden of his preliminary injunction request.”

The judge indicated the park has legitimate safety concerns, but Clapp remains unpersuaded, arguing  bison and “the giant supervolcano” are bigger concerns than his animals.

“I can literally drive a horse and carriage on a frickin’ interstate, or on any road in America, without a license,” Clapp told the Wyoming Truth. “So … for me, it’s just emblematic of the bureaucratic bulls—.”

The Free Press founder Bari Weiss interviewed Walter Clapp outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Sept. 27 Republican presidential debate, giving him a boost of publicity. (Screenshot taken from from Bari Weiss’s X feed)

What’s next

The lawsuit remains pending, but Johnson said it’s likely Clapp will lose — and the issue has become less urgent as Yellowstone roads close for the winter.

In his complaint, Clapp asserted the park’s decision hurt his chances of qualifying for the first Republican presidential debate in August, but Peters called that “entirely speculative and theoretical.”

Clapp needed donations from 40,000 people to make the stage in Milwaukee and came up well short, campaign finance reports indicate. However, he did campaign outside the venue with a bullwhip and he stationed his wagon and horses outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for September’s second debate.

Clapp — who’s spent over $17,500 on his campaign — indicated he’ll skip next week’s GOP debate in Miami. But as he prepares to move from Red Lodge, Montana, to Laramie, he’s looking to connect with the Wyoming Republican Party and find new ways to push for expanding the House. And he plans on keeping his horses in the mix.

“The horses,” Clapp said, “are here to stay.”

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