Advocates say increase size of wild horse herd (NC)

Currituck to address management plan

By JENNIFER PREYSS | Staff Writer | The Daily Advance | Monday, September 08, 2008

Corolla Horse Close UpCurrituck County residents will have a chance next month to sound off about a herd management plan critics contend is harming Corolla’s famous wild horses.

The Currituck Board of Commissioners will hold a hearing in October on the management plan, which currently limits the Corolla herd to 60 horses.
Even though the county endorsed the plan when it was imposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service several years ago, horse advocates now say revisions are needed.

Karen McCaplin, executive director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, believes the Corolla herd should be much larger. She points to a study performed last year that suggests the current restriction on the herd’s size may be harmful to the horses’ long-term health.

Last May, veterinarian Gus Cothran, a bio-geneticist from Texas A&M University, released the findings of his DNA study that determined the herd — believed to have been brought to the New World by Spanish explorers more than five centuries ago — survived by inbreeding.

While that inbreeding hasn’t yet affected the herd’s physical beauty and good health, long-term inbreeding could lead to genetic diseases, reproductive problems, and possible physical mutation, Cothran warned.

He suggested allowing the herd to interbreed with other herds.

“There is no indication of defects, but their best bet (of future survival) is increasing the herd size and allowing the horses to interbreed,” Cothran said.

Cothran’s study also confirmed that the wild horses of Shackleford Banks, a herd of 120 spread over 3,000 acres, share the same genetic makeup as the Corolla horses.

He recommended an ideal herd size of 110 that could be maintained by exchanging several mares and stallions from each group to decrease inbreeding.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s current management plan, however, restricts the herd size to 60. It recommends physical removal of any additional horses through an adoption program and darting the mares with birth control.

Some of Fish and Wildlife Service’s objections to a larger herd include concerns about what impact the horses’ grazing patterns would have on migratory birds and other species. In fact, if Fish and Wildlife Service had its way, the Corolla herd would be even smaller, about 45 horses.

McCaplin said she has been struggling for months to get Fish and Wildlife officials to endorse increasing the herd. Her efforts have failed, she said, because protecting the horses isn’t a priority for the federal agency.

“Having wild horses is contrary to their mission,” she said. “I anticipate they will not be receptive to increasing the herd.”

Mike Hoff, refuge manager for the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, said the Fish and Wildlife Service has no plans to allow more horses on the Currituck Outer Banks.

“McCaplin was aware the herd number was 60 when she signed the horse management plan several years ago,” Hoff said. “That document was put out after much discussion and debate.”

Currituck Commissioner Owen Etheridge says he’s sympathetic to McCaplin’s concerns. The wild horses share more than 12,000 acres with other species — more than enough space, he said, to increase the herd size.

“If the 120 Shackleford Banks horses aren’t destroying the wildlife on 3,000 acres, how is a heard of 110 on 12,000 acres going to destroy the wildlife?” Etheridge asked.

County officials and Wild Horse Fund staff members aren’t the only county residents concerned about the management plan’s limits.

Scott Trabue, owner of Back Country Outfitters, would like to the see the herd size increased as well.

“They’re a major form of tourism,” Trabue said. “Take any survey, and the number one thing (tourists want) to do is see the horses.”

Trabue, who guides tourists through Carova’s undeveloped terrain to see the herd, said he doesn’t understand why the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t more concerned about protecting the wild horses.

“Our horses are on the critical list of endangered species,” Trabue said. “I don’t know why (the Fish and Wildlife Service) has been so difficult in the past about the horses.”

McCaplin, Etheridge, and Trabue all say the management plan will need to be changed to protect the horses’ long-term health. They’re hoping community residents will attend the commissioners’ meeting to take part in the discussion about possible changes.

“Something needs to be done,” Etheridge said.

McCaplin agrees.

“The people of Currituck County need to get involved, the horses are part of our history, culture and economy,” she said. “Our country was built on the backs of Spanish mustangs, they deserve better treatment than this.”

The Currituck Banks Wild Horse Advisory Board also plans to discuss the management plan at its meeting on Oct. 15.

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