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Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg
On Currituck Banks, the northernmost reach of the Outer Banks, a herd of wild horses has been in residence for centuries. These horses are strikingly Spanish in appearance—short-
Unless we change the laws that govern their management, this herd will become progressively more inbred until it becomes extinct.
There is no question that these horses carry the blood of the ancient Spanish Jennets brought to the New World by conquistadors, but just how those bloodlines reached the Banker Horses is a topic of hot dispute. Some think Spanish explorers left horses deliberately on barrier islands in the sixteenth century. Others quote legends in which the original progenitors swam ashore from ancient shipwrecks. Most likely, they are the descendants of Spanish-
Early settlers migrated down from the Chesapeake area before 1700 in search of land on which to graze livestock—ideally, that which was unsuitable for any other purpose. The earliest colonial farm animals included Spanish stock bought (or, according to some accounts, stolen) in the West Indies, probably from some of the same ranches that supplied horses to the conquistadors. Marshy lowlands provided good forage and required little investment. Livestock could be contained on a peninsula with only a fence at some narrow spot or on a barrier island with no fence at all. Before long, islands and necks all along the East Coast supported free-
In 1935, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation requiring livestock owners on barrier islands from the Virginia line to Hatteras Inlet to contain their animals within fences. Many of these stockmen did not own large tracts of land and had allowed their animals to graze in marshland owned by neighbors or absentees. In the depths of the Great Depression, stockmen who might have maintained livestock profitably on their own property were reluctant or unable to invest in fencing, dipping vats, and other things required by law. Suddenly families comprising generations of herders were forced to find another livelihood. Within a few years, the number of substantial livestock operations on the Outer Banks shrank from about 50 to seven or eight.
The few horses that evaded capture or slaughter retreated to the most remote reaches of the northern Banks, near Corolla, where they peacefully coexisted with the residents. The village of Corolla was originally called Whales Head, then renamed Currituck Beach. When the post office opened around the turn of 20th century, the little town was named Corolla. Until 1973, the only land access was by 15 mi (24 km) of rutty, unpaved state road from the south or by beach from the north.
Developers paved a road north to the village, but restricted access until 1984. When the state took over responsibility for maintaining the road, the outside world descended on the little village. Before 1986, there were only 35 full-
The dark horses that often crossed the road at night knew nothing about the impatient drivers that flew down the new roadways. By 1989, 17 horses had been killed in road accidents—six of them in a single incident. Corolla residents and visitors united to create the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. Their mission was to guard the Corolla horses against the human invasion and attempt to preserve their wildness.
The horses needed government protection, but because most government agencies consider them non-
As Corolla residents wrestled with red tape, horses were dying on the highway. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund outfitted the horses with reflective collars to make them more visible to motorists, sprayed their bodies with glow-
The horses were not afraid of people, so visitors assumed that they were tame. They fed them junk food, patted then, and even placed children on the backs of these untrained 700-
Eventually, the horses were recognized as a cultural resource worthy of protection. In 1997, Currituck County officials assembled members of the Wild Horse Fund, the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, and the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve to work out a management plan which has since been updated. The 13-
Moreover, a small herd is easily destroyed by disease, drought, fire, flood, or hurricane. This risk is very real. On Cumberland Island National Seashore, a 1990 outbreak of mosquito-
The Corolla Wild Horse Fund built a fence with donated money, land, materials, and labor, hoping to encourage the horses to stay within the largely uninhabited, unpaved area of northern Currituck Banks. The horses were unimpressed and simply walked around the ends of the fence to resume grazing on the green lawns of Corolla. In 1995 an improved sea-
The fence keeps the horses out of the paved and thickly settled village of Corolla, but the same problems continue. Horses are still being hit by vehicles and left to die slowly, only now the horses are in danger from 4x4s and ATVs on the beach. Three horses were struck by vehicles in 2009. In her first four years as director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, Karen McCalpin experienced the deaths of 19 horses, most of them accidental and caused by humans. Unintentional killings are heartbreaking enough, but, incomprehensibly, there have also been premeditated shootings. Between 2001 and 2007, seven horses were gunned down in cold blood and left to decompose. The shooters are still at large despite a $12,550 reward for information leading to their arrest.
Horse breeds are always changing, and there is always a balance to be struck between keeping bloodlines pure and losing genetic diversity. Too much diversity, and uniqueness of the population is lost; too little, and the population will collapse.
In the early 1990s the Currituck herd had fewer than 20 individuals. As a result, genes were irretrievably lost. In 2009, there were only about 100 breeding mares in the Currituck and Shackleford herds combined. In the absence of proper management, this rare breed will become extinct.
Upon taking the CWHF Executive Director position in, Karen McCalpin recognized that if the herd was managed at 60 animals, there would eventually be a complete genetic collapse similar to that experienced by the Ocracoke herd. Dr. E. Gus Cothran evaluated the genetic makeup of the Corolla herd in 2007 and found that its genetic diversity is among the lowest that has ever been found in a horse breed.
At the 2008 Currituck Outer Banks Wild Horse Advisory Board meeting, McCalpin requested that the number of horses in the herd be increased to the 110 individuals recommended by Dr. Cothran. When the Fish and Wildlife Service and Currituck NCNERR were presented with the evidence, the agencies denied the request on the grounds that the horses were detrimental to the environment. McCalpin found no scientific justification for their denial. Research has demonstrated that while horses do damage plants and compete with other wildlife, this damage is temporary.
On June 8, 2010, H.R. 5482, U.S. Represenative Walter B. Jones (NC 3) introduced the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act in the 111th session of Congress. It required the secretary of the Interior to establish a partnership with the Corolla Wild Horse Fund similar that between the Park Service and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses. This bill allowed for a herd of not less than 110 horses in and around the Currituck NWR with a target population of 120–130 horses. Occasional introductions of horses from Shackleford Banks would expand the gene pool. Jones introduced a new bill with the same title to the 112th Congress on January 18, 2011. It was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee on Oct 5, 2011, then died. Jones reintroduced the bill January 3, 2013, as H.R. 126. It failed to pass the Senate that session. In June of 2013, it passed the House vote again (unanimously), and it now needs to pass the U.S. Senate to become law. H.R. 126 is critical to the long-
The Fish and Wildlife Service opposes this bill, as do The Wildlife Society, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Defenders of Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, Public Lands Foundation, and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. Detractors maintain that the purpose of the refuge is to support what they consider wildlife, including waterfowl, migratory birds, and endangered species.
A highly polarized battle wages between those who want the free-
Detrimental or potentially detrimental effects of free-
Conversely, many researchers have demonstrated the beneficial or potentially beneficial effects of the grazing of large herbivores on ecosystems, especially wetlands and grasslands (Keiper, 1981; Stahlheber& D’Antonio, 2013, Anderson, 1993; Benot, Bonis, Rossignol, & Mony, 2011; Duncan & D'Herbes, 1982; Levin, Ellis, Petrik, & Hay, 2002; Menard, Duncan, Fleurance, Georges, & Lila, 2002; Plassmann, Laurence, Jones, & Gareth Edwards, 2010; Stroh, Mountford, & Owen, 2012; Vavra, 2005; Wylie, 2012). Documented beneficial environmental effects of feral horses include
There are other benefits. In one study, non-
The Currituck herd ranges on about 7,544.25 acres of the north beach, none of it a wild horse sanctuary. About 70% of their range is privately owned, and the other 30% is public land specifically set aside for “native” wildlife preservation. The agencies managing the federal land view feral horses as competitive with indigenous species for habitat. In December, 2013, the Currituck NWR erected 3 miles (4.8 km) of dangerous barbed wire fence, excluding the horses from their property and putting them, other animals, and people at risk of horrific injury. Despite public outcry and political pressure, the fence remains..
The development boom continues on Currituck Banks, and a proposed bridge to connect Corolla directly to the North Carolina mainland will encourage more visitors. The northern parts of Currituck Banks are becoming more appealing to developers. As of 2010, there were 3,090 platted lots and more than 1,300 existing homes, including mansions with more than 20 bedrooms.
The Currituck herd represents one of the rarest strains of Colonial Spanish Horses. For centuries, they have bred almost entirely to one another, and over time they became a unique population and one of the oldest surviving American breeds. Conant, Juras, and Cothran, writing about the Colonial Spanish horses of the southeast, commented that “these relic populations are worth preserving, both for their genetic as well as their historical heritage as descendants of the first modern horses in the Americas.” Other strains of Colonial Spanish horse include the Belsky, the Cerbat, the Choctaw, the Florida Cracker, the Marsh Tacky, the New Mexico, the Pryor Mountain, the Santa Cruz, the Sulphur, and the Wilbur-
In 2001, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund incorporated as a stand-
A Web site that receives more than 1 million hits annually serves as an information hub at
The best way to see the Currituck horses is to accompany the herd manager on her rounds. With the purchase of a Mustang Defender membership at the $250 level, two people can ride with the manager for about 4 hours, observing and even participating in census taking, record keeping, and other daily tasks. This trip is educational and individualized, it offers excellent opportunities for photographs, and every dollar goes to help the wild horses.
These animals owe their liberty to the advocates who have battled so relentlessly on their behalf. With continued providence and careful protection, these beautiful animals can continue to run on the Carolina coast in the centuries ahead, but maintaining a viable herd will require deliberate conservation efforts. Says Steve Edwards of Mill Swamp Indian Horses in Smithfield, VA “Extinction lasts forever and the clock is ticking.”
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Historical sites, museums, attractions, parks, recreation areas-
Visiting Corolla and Currituck Banks, NC
Campground, hotel, motel, or B&B -
Bistros, delis, restaurants, snack bars, buffets-
Currituck Horses Links
|Assateague, MD - Visiting|
|Assateague MD - Lodging|
|Assateague MD - Dining|
|Corolla, NC Visiting|
|Corolla, NC - Dining|
|Corolla, NC - Lodging|
|Ocracoke Island Lodging|
|Ocracoke Island Dining|
|Visiting Ocracoke Island|
|Visiting Shackleford Banks|
|Shackleford Banks Dining|
|Shackleford Banks Lodging|
|Visit Cumberland Island GA|
|Cumberland Island National Seashore - dining|
|Cumberland Island National Seashore Lodging|
|The Value of Wild Horses|