Horse News

Wild Horse Herd’s Fate Lies in Preservation Clash

By LAURA BEIL of The New York Times

Their numbers have dwindled to only a few hundred

photo courtesy of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund

COROLLA, N.C. — Come summer, the beaches of this barrier island will be choked with cars and sunbathers, but in the off-season the land is left to wild horses. Smallish, tending toward chestnut and black, they wander past deserted vacation rentals in harems of five or six.

Thousands of them once roamed the length of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the likely descendants from mounts that belonged to Spanish explorers five centuries ago. Now their numbers have dwindled to a few hundred, the best known living on federal parkland at Shackleford Banks.

But the largest herd, which has recently grown to almost 140 strong, occupies more than 7,500 acres of narrow land that stretches from the end of Highway 12 in Corolla (pronounced cor-AH-la) to the Virginia border, 11 miles north. Lacking natural predators, and trapped by fences that jut into the choppy Atlantic, the herd is becoming so inbred that its advocates fear a genetic collapse in mere generations.

These supporters are leading a campaign to save the Corolla herd, and they have powerful allies in Congress. In February, the House passed a bill that would sustain the herd at about 120 and allow the importing of new mares from Shackleford for an introduction of fresh genes.

Wildlife conservationists say the issue is not so simple. The beaches, marshes, grasslands and forests near Corolla are a stopover for flocks of endangered migratory birds, and nesting ground for sea turtles. Much of the horses’ range belongs to the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, and defenders of the native habitat fear the herd’s current size strains the ecosystem.

The future of the horses raises larger questions about whether one animal should be preserved at the expense of others — and who gets to decide.

“This is about values,” said Michael Hutchins, executive director of the Wildlife Society, representing wildlife biologists and managers, which opposes the House measure. “I like horses; I think they are fascinating animals. I also deeply value what little we have left of our native species and their habitats.”

Both sides invoke science to their cause. But data are sparse and a comprehensive study of the horses’ impact is not expected before next year.

In the arena of political and public sentiment, the horses win hands down. Bonds between horse and human have existed for centuries; it is the animal that has pulled plows, and carried armies and settlers forward in the name of civilization.

“God has put such a beautiful thing here — how can you not want to protect them?” said Betty Lane, 70, who has lived here for more than 40 years, driving her S.U.V. as part of a citizen patrol to protect the horses. (She stopped after mistaking a reporter for a tourist trying to get too close to the horses, in defiance of local law.) She wore a necklace bearing the name Spec, for a stallion killed by a hit-and-run driver on the beach.

photo courtesy of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund

Dedication to wild horses runs so deep here and elsewhere that many supporters even chafe at the notion of calling the animals “non-native,” citing fossil records that horses lived in North America more than 11,000 years ago before going extinct along other Pleistocene creatures like mastodons.

The wild horses of Corolla did not arise here, but they are domestic animals that have lost their domesticity. Though skeptics question whether the horses are indeed Spanish, an inspection from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and other groups has noted the horses’ short backs, low-set tails and other traits that make them distinct from other North American stock. A DNA analysis published February in Animal Genetics also points to a common origin for the horses, suggesting they may be a living relic of an Iberian breed that exists nowhere else.

The study also confirms fears that the horses are growing perilously inbred. “There are wild herds with lower diversity, but not many,” said Gus Cothran, an expert in equine genetics at Texas A&M University who is lead author of the report. He says a herd of 60 could survive, provided a new mare entered the group every generation (about eight years). The federal bill sets a herd size at 110 to 130, the minimum number Dr. Cothran says could slow genetic erosion if the horses remain isolated.

“We are not asking for hundreds of horses,” said Karen McCalpin, director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which protects and cares for the horses, and leads public education about them. The heart of the disagreement with wildlife conservationists is over how many horses the habitat can bear. “If they were that detrimental for the environment,” she asked, “wouldn’t that be evident by now?”

Click (HERE) to read the rest of the story at The New York Times

12 replies »

  1. If the habitat has supported them for the last 500 years, I think they will be fine. Do any of these horses have primative markings? And Mr. Hutchins seemed to insinuate that they are not ‘native’ – then we if so we have to admit that we people are not ‘native’ either.


  2. The Coralla Wild Horse Herd has been a part of Corolla for many generations and I believe, as long as it’s managed properly, which it has, they can continue to be part of this beautiful area. Also, it’s a great opportunity for vacationers to see these magnificent creatures up close to appreciate their beauty in the wild. It can continue to be a win-win for the horses and the town with proper control and foresight. They will survive, as long as they have the support of Corolla.


    • They have the support of Corolla, but they need part of the wildlife refuge to graze since some of the former grazing land has been developed. The one thing that is very different in Currituck is that the horses live there, but they are facing the death eaters at Interior. Unlike most places in the West where ranching rules, these horses play a vital role in the local economy, and there is not a politician in North Carolina who is unaware of this. Perhaps if Interior is interested in selling its land at $2.00 an acre, this would be a good place to do it.


  3. Wildlife conservationists equals a bunch of hunters probably and the Fish and Game favors them. Just get rid of the deer and wild hogs and leave these horses alone.


  4. When Mr. Hutchins referred to the horses as feral in the House Committee testimony, he was almost laughed out of the room. The question was just exactly how many 100’s of years does a species have to survive in an area as part of the ecosystem before it quits being feral. Particularly since some of the species he wants to protect are definitely non-native.


  5. “The future of the horses raises larger questions about whether one animal should be preserved at the expense of others — and who gets to decide.” This is the question that applies to everything on the planet – who gets to decide who/what gets to stay and who/what has to go. And it’s being asked by the one “animal” that over breeds and indiscriminately uses up resources without any thought to how to replace or leave some for the rest. What an amazing tipping point we have reached.


  6. That word “feral” keeps showing up, over and over. There appears to be an all-out campaign against everything that Americans value, especially native wildlife, as we have witnessed with our Wild Horses and Burros. Perhaps those individuals in the “feral police” should be run through a DNA check.
    Debbie Coffey
    The words feral, non-native, and invasive species are now being slung around by government agencies like mud in a pig pen.”
    There is no “National Invasive Species Laboratory.”
    (Try to look it up on the internet.) So, what is DNR aligning itself with?


  7. They are beautiful, & have been living here for a very long time. Why can’t these Corolla horses stay & continue co-existing with “native” wildlife & plants as they have for who knows how long? If they are indeed “over-populating”, can’t they be rounded up (humanely!!!!), & let some be adopted into good homes, as they do in Chincoteague & Assateague? Then, release the remaining horses back into the wild, until the following year. If they are inbreeding, take the fences down, or, bring in horses from different areas to replenish the gene pool. Always remember, far more than the beaches or ocean, it’s these horses that bring in the tourists, they are the main reason people come. No horses, no tourists=no money for the area!! “One animal is not being preserved at the expense of the others” as stated somewhere above, they have been, &, can continue to happily co-exist, unlike us humans!


  8. I’ve been reading that the fate of the horses are also being threatened by avid, sun bathers, all terrain vehicle drivers who like the beaches and growing property values. As with the western wild ones, these horses face an uncertain future.


  9. What about all the positive benefits of these returned native horses to the ecosystem?! These I reveal in detail in my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy. I think there is a lot of thick skulled approach here. The horses can establish a harmonious balance with the other species if so allowed. It’s just that mankind, particularly the authorities and the status quo, is not making allowances for them, is not letting them prove they are capable of this!


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