By SEAN COCKERHAM
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.
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. Read full report »