Feds agree to help diversify Outer Banks’ wild horses

Story by Sean Cockerham as published in The Alaska Dispatch News

“It’s almost too good to be true,”

Photo courtesy of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund

Photo courtesy of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund

WASHINGTON — As the summer tourist season approaches on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, there’s a growing hope among horse advocates that the iconic wild horses of Corolla can be saved from a fate of inbreeding and deformities.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which considers the horses “nuisance animals” that compete with federally protected birds for habitat, has loosened its stance and is allowing the introduction of new horses into the threatened herd in order to bring in fresh genes.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” said Karen McCalpin, executive director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which protects the Spanish mustangs.

The horses have survived on a narrow barrier island in the northern edge of North Carolina’s Outer Banks for some 500 years, believed to be descendants of colonial mounts that swam to shore after Spanish galleons ran aground on the shoals and sandbars of the Outer Banks.

They are some of the last remaining wild horses in the Eastern United States and a hugely popular tourist attraction. But the herd of about 100 horses has become severely inbred and is down to a single maternal line, resulting in deformities and fears of extinction.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., repeatedly pushed a bill to allow the herd to grow to 130 horses and to let the Corolla Wild Horse Fund bring in horses from a different island at the far southern tip of the Outer Banks in order to infuse fresh genes into the herd. But the Fish and Wildlife Service successfully opposed the bill — some of the horses cross into the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, and the Fish and Wildlife Service considers them a problem.

Under pressure from horse advocates and members of Congress, though, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now letting outside horses join the Corolla herd under a new management plan for the horses.

“We aren’t objecting to the new horses for genetic diversity, and we are part of the new management plan for the Corolla herd,” said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie.

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund has taken advantage of the green light by quickly adding a 4-year-old stallion, Gus, bringing him to join the herd from Cedar Island, some 100 miles to the south.

“I DNA tested him first to make sure that he was indeed a colonial Spanish mustang … so that is the first introduction of new colonial Spanish banker strain genes into the herd in five centuries,” McCalpin said.

Now McCalpin hopes to add a pair of Cedar Island mares.

“I actually prefer that they use mares. They incorporate into a population easier, a stallion is going to receive a challenge from other stallions and may not succeed in actually getting in and contributing genes,” said Gus Cothran, an expert in equine genetics at Texas A&M University who has studied the herd.

He said the introduction of new horses gives him hope for a herd he identified in 2012 as dangerously inbred.

“The concern is whether it’s too late,” Cothran said. “I don’t think so, but that would be something to think about.”

McCalpin is still pressing for Congress to pass Jones’ bill letting the herd go up to 130 horses. Without it, she fears the Fish and Wildlife Service might decide at any time to limit the herd.

“This has got to be our year, because I’m basically just holding the population steady because of birth defects,” she said.

14 comments on “Feds agree to help diversify Outer Banks’ wild horses

  1. This is so exciting. If you have ever explored the sounds in North Carolin’s Outer Banks, you cannot help but be struck by he fact that there is very little slope. You could leave the mainland and walk several hundred yards and still be in shin-deep water. The first time I went with friends tubing our way around I remember thinking that this was just like a horse pasture (sans grass) flooded with water. My research on horse evolution revealed that this is exactly what the area had been for millions of years stretching almost to the continental shelf. Horse fossils have a way of surfacing when a storm or some other event stirs up the sediments. The stories tell of Spanish explorers scouting the shoreline for possible port sites when they returned, but if they lingered too long close to land with a heavy load, it is not hard to imagine how easily they could have gone aground and been stuck with a heavy load. It is kind of exciting to imagine what it must have been like for those first horses off-loaded swimming across the coastal prairie where their ancestors grazed. They were coming home.

    These horses are from the Iberian line which is also exciting. These horses have some ancestry as all of their ancestors originated here, but these horses found their way to the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain). Scientists are not sure why, but the geological formation that allowed the horses to cross from the main continent disappeared, possible due to uplift creating mountains in what is now France, and the horses were cut off from the mainland. They were cut off from humans for thousands of years and self selected their mates for survival as horses do on their own. The climate, soil, winds, vegetation would have been similar to coastal North Carolina because, after all, they were just on the other side of the ocean. We now know that the ocean had not always been between North American and Europe, but began to fill after uplift caused rifting of the rock formations on the surface. Even after the continents began to separate they were joined by land bridges that allowed the horses to move from continent to continent. Almost all horse evolution took place in North America, but the horses cross these bridges during climate extremes because these areas would good enough for them for a while.

    When they returned the horses on the coast thrived and grew to as many as 7,000 just as the horses in the West grew to herds between one and two million. It is enough to make an reasonable, educated person choke to hear mere humans who have existed around 40,000 years talk about where the horses belong because such and such was established for native wildlife. Let’s hope the scientific evidence is sinking in.

    Thanks Debbie and R. T. for all you do.

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  2. Why is there no mention that these mares have been receiving the contraceptive PZP for some some twenty odd years? All while under intense scrutiny and supervision of tha park service.
    This is an example of what we can expect to see as the mares in the West are treated with this contraceptive.
    We must find a better way.

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    • Per the article the Fish & Wildlife Service manages this herd, not the Park Service. The Park Service has set a pretty good herd management example in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, though.

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      • all the islands except chincoteague, have used PZP extensively and all are in genetic freefall-shackelford , chincoteague, and corolla-the fire dept controls the chincoteagues, and adopts out foals successfully, maybe fire depts should manage wild horses..Learn from the mistakes of others-or perish the wild herds of the west in the same way

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  3. This sounds like good news for these horses – thanks for letting us know.
    I imagine there are other factors that I am not aware of but I did see this statement, “But the herd of about 100 horses has become severely inbred and is down to a single maternal line, resulting in deformities and fears of extinction.”
    So even with ~100 horses in this herd, inbreeding and deformities have emerged clearly showing that ~100 horses is NOT enough for a genetically healthy herd?
    And isn’t it something like only 50 of our wild horse herds in the west have 150+ animals (i.e. supposedly but questionably genetically viable)?
    And aren’t our wild burro herds in even a worse scenario – something like about only a dozen of our wild burro herds even have a population of anywhere near 150+?

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    • Grandmagregg, this is good information to express to the Billings BLM for the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse 2015 Gather. I received notice on Friday that the BLM is requesting more information and data. They have lowered the proposed number of young horses to 25 down from 30. The close date for comments is Saturday, June 6th. Grandmagreg posted on another forum that in 2011 there were 18/18; thus, zero population growth. If anyone knows the births/deaths for 2012-2014 would also be good information to pass on to BLM that there has only been a very slow population increase. It would really be great if we can avoid a gather this year of all the young horses on Pryor Mountain and elsewhere with just this sort of data. Still praying for miracles everyday!

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      • I agree with you. We must always speak for our wild horses and burros – and speak the truth. I have written the BLM re: the Pryors many times and most other WH&B public comments re: captures and issues and will continue to do so and hope you will also – although BLM believes they are above the law – but we will not give up – period.
        Here is the link to the BLM Pryor plan:
        http://www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/billings_field_office/wildhorses/pryorherd.html

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      • I’m with you, Grandmagregg. I’ve been answering most comment notices since January. Obviously not as long as yourself. I’m not giving up yet. I’m reading a book from our law library about endangered species. It’s so good I bought it so I could tab & highlight. I’m trying to educate myself on proper conservation techniques and maintaining viable habitat.

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    • Thank you for sharing, Geri. That’s a Feel Good Sunday story! I shared on FB & LinkedIn. Two of my passions: I love our Wild Horses & I love books. I should have been a librarian.

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  4. google the corolla wild horses and you will find plenty about how they PZPd these wild horses over the years-are there really 100 breeding horses, how many mares are not actually PZPd? Folks keep saying there are 170 breeding herd of Pryors when actually there are only 20-+ mares bred..so it is a 20 horse breeding herd..it is no longer just the BLM spinning the facts
    choice of outside stallion is important-use only current adult band stallions from another herd, experienced warriors, then choose mares to add from outside with stud colts at their side..the only way you can significantly change the gene structure to keep ahead of the defective genes is thru the stallions, who can sire alot more babies in a year than a mare will foal in a whole lifetime

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