All the Pretty Beach Horses

Can the descendants of horses left by Spanish explorers coexist with native plants and animals on North Carolina's environmentally sensitive Outer Banks? A study will tell.
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Can the descendants of horses left by Spanish explorers coexist with native plants and animals on North Carolina's environmentally sensitive Outer Banks? A study will tell.

When  a few local residents first came upon Spec during the early morning hours of May 24, they knew the horse was not going to survive. With its left hind leg broken and bleeding — snapped in two by what authorities believe was an ATV collision — Spec had crawled nearly a mile during the night and passed out with the rise of the sun. Found lying motionless except for its panting on a beach in Corolla, N.C., the mustang was eventually taken to a local animal hospital, where it was euthanized just a few hours later.

Spec's fate is not altogether uncommon for the horses in a small herd of Spanish colonial mustangs that roam wild on some 12,000 acres of the northern-most beaches of North Carolina's Outer Banks barrier islands. The untamed world of these wild horses has been colliding with encroaching civilization for decades, particularly since the construction of homes along the coastline first began creeping northward throughout the 1980s, and Highway 12 was extended as far north as Corolla.


By 1989, 17 horses had been killed in road accidents, and the numbers have not leveled off. Just two months prior to Spec's death, a stallion named T-Rex had to be euthanized after another beach vehicle collision. And all of this is to say nothing of the seven horses that have been shot and killed since 2001, with no arrests made in any of the cases.

"It's the Wild West up there," says Karen McCalpin, executive director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit organization formed in 1989 with the intention of managing, protecting and preserving this herd, which can be found between the town of Corolla and the Virginia state line, 11 miles to the north. "People go up there and drive drunk or recklessly on the beach, and the horses have suffered the consequences."

But the deaths of these horses at the hands of the surrounding human population is just a part of the larger web of complex challenges the herd faces in its struggle for survival.

The Outer Banks was once full of mustangs thought to be descendents of horses brought to North America by explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries. In a 1926 National Geographic article, writer Melville Chater wrote that "between 5,000 and 6,000 of these wild horses roam the sand banks of the North Carolina coast." It is because of their imported history, however, that federal officials do not consider the mustangs a species indigenous to the island.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service considers the horses to be non-native, feral animals and not a natural component of the barrier island ecosystem," the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge's Web site says. "These animals compete with native wildlife species for food and fresh water. Their activities degrade and destroy habitat, which negatively impacts native species."

And this is the crux of the conflict: McCalpin believes the Corolla mustangs present no real threat to indigenous species in their area; the managers of that area, meanwhile, are bound by federal mandate to protect its inhabitants.

Unlike similar wild horse populations on the Atlantic coast — such as the mustangs on Cape Lookout National Seashore, 3,000 federally protected acres at the southern-most tip of the Outer Banks — the Corolla mustangs are not protected by either federal or state regulation. A 1989 Currituck County ordinance makes it a misdemeanor (punishable by a $500 maximum fine) to intentionally harm or interfere with the animals, but that's as far as the arm of the law reaches.

That same ordinance also established the 7,544-acre "wild horse sanctuary" on which the Corolla horses now roam, but the term is a bit misleading. Two fences, one at each end of the sanctuary, span the barrier island from the sound behind it to the sea, keeping the horses from wandering out of the protected area. Seventy percent of the sanctuary is privately owned and has the potential for future development. The remaining acreage is divided between the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve (331 acres), and the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge (2,495 acres), which is run by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

"I think the term 'horse sanctuary' is almost tongue-in-cheek. It gives the impression these horses are protected," McCalpin says. "They are not protected." The problem of protection goes beyond simply sheltering the mustangs from human interference and land development. In fact, McCalpin says, those concerns are relatively slight when compared to another overarching challenge: managing the size of the herd.

Because of the nature of the sanctuary, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund has virtually no authority when it comes to the size of the Corolla horse population. The organization is free to care for and manage the herd, but in doing so, it must adhere to the terms set forth in the Currituck Outer Banks Wild Horse Management Plan, written and overseen by refuge managers from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Estuarine Research Reserve. The plan limits the Corolla herd size to 60 horses. As of the most recent aerial count, 101 Spanish colonial mustangs roam the sanctuary, which means McCalpin's group is expected to reduce the population by more than 40.

"When I came on as director in 2006 and saw that number of 60, I thought, 'There's no way this herd can survive at such a small number,'" McCalpin says.

Gus Cothran is a professor at Texas A&M University and a well-known equine geneticist and expert on feral horse herds. He has studied and written about the Corolla wild horse population and says the genetic health and diversity of the herd is one of the weakest in the country. This, Cothran says, is potentially dangerous for the long-term sustainability of the population, and he has recommended on several occasions the herd be maintained at a minimum of 110 individuals.

"If you want to preserve them, you need to be doing something to keep the numbers as large as possible, because once you cut it down, you're going to lose something you can't get back," Cothran says. "A lot of times the managers who want to cut the numbers down think you can cut them down to 60 and that it will take little time to get back to a larger number at some point in the future. But that's not really true. You will never regain the original genetic diversity of the herd once it's reduced."

This issue of fading genetic health has been McCalpin's most repeated argument in her recent attempts to have the management plan changed to reflect a larger herd size, but so far, the Currituck County Wild Horse Advisory Board has denied her requests.

"I have asked twice to have [the management plan] changed to reflect a healthy herd size of at least 110, and they have refused to do it," McCalpin says. "But that's because [the Fish and Wildlife Service] is not specifically interested in protecting these horses. They consider them a feral, invasive species and a threat to native wildlife."

Actually, federal officials seem more sympathetic to the horses than McCalpin suggests.

Dennis Stewart is a staff biologist at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Manteo, N.C. "I like the horses. They're part of my history and childhood. So I'm not an anti-horse person in any way. But I'm also a wildlife biologist who works on a wildlife refuge with a mission and a purpose," Stewart says. "Our primary job is to look after certain migratory birds and other listed species. So people can't just point the finger at the refuge and say, 'You need to maintain this horse herd.'

"But I'm an optimist. My cup is half full, and I think the more we communicate and coordinate and talk to each other, the better we'll be. The worst thing would be to just polarize ourselves and go off into our separate camps."

Mike Hoff, manager of the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, echoes the sentiment. He says he and McCalpin have been working together throughout the last two years to try and determine a solution to the increasingly contentious gridlock, which means stepping back from emotion and studying the matter as objectively as possible.

"I think we have a great relationship with [the Corolla Wild Horse Fund]," Hoff says. "We work together on a lot of different issues, and that's why we're now embarking on a study to try and determine the impact [the horses] have so we know how to manage them in the future. We are a science-based organization, and we need to step back and let the science tell us what's going on."

That study is set to begin in the spring of 2010; it will try to determine the impact the Corolla horses have on the indigenous species contained within the Currituck refuge.

The man in charge of the study is Chris DePerno, a professor in North Carolina State University's Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. DePerno says the study will not only investigate the impact of the mustangs but also the influence that feral pigs and white-tailed deer have on the surrounding habitat.

To be sure, DePerno says, the study is in its infancy, with limited funding coming from a $50,000 Fish and Wildlife Services grant, and matching time and support resources provided by his university. The process will take several years and hundreds of thousands of additional dollars.

"This is going to be piecemeal because these projects take money — serious money — to do well. And to be honest, we may not be able to answer all the questions right now, but this is a piece of the pie," DePerno says.

McCalpin believes the results will prove that the mustangs have a negligible impact on the land, which will bring her one step closer to protecting the herd.

"It's going to take the support of the state and its legislators to make this happen because unless we can get this comprehensive study completed, U.S. Fish and Wildlife will never agree to change the management plan," McCalpin says. "And I believe that if we're forced to manage this herd at 60, these horses will be gone within a decade. As long as I'm here, I will not manage them at 60. I'll quit first, because I know what will happen."

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