Island Legacies

Four hundred years ago, according to legend, Spanish mustangs swam from shipwrecks to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Today, untamed descendants of these horses still run free in small herds along Shackleford Banks, an undeveloped island off the coast of Beaufort, North Carolina.

This timeless scenario could change, however, because most of the horses are scheduled to be removed from the island this fall—under an order issued by the National Park Service (NPS).

According to Michael Rikard, NPS resource management specialist, “The main objective of the reduction is to reduce the grazing and trampling impacts on the vegetation and to maintain a smaller, healthy herd of horses.” The NPS’ plan to reduce the island’s horse population from 225 to less than 75 hinges on the claim that the wild horses are not indigenous species, despite having inhabited the Outer Banks for centuries. And without “native” status, the NPS says it is not accountable for their safety and protection.

To disprove the NPS’s malnourishment claims, animal rights activists contend that vegetation along Shackleford Banks is more abundant than ever and have provided photos of thriving horses. Moreover, vegetation studies, upon which the reduction plan was based, were conducted when chickens, goats and cows—now placed elsewhere—inhabited the island.

In an effort to keep the horses on the island, North Carolina Congressman Walter B. Jones, Jr. (R-NC) recently ordered an updated vegetation study. “The future of the Shackleford Banks horses should be based on science—not politics,” says Jones. “Any compromise over the number of horses remaining on the island should be predicated on the importance of the island’s vegetation to the horses’ health and to the NPS’s mission.” Thus far, the Congressman’s involvement has succeeded in increasing the number of ponies to be saved from 50 to over 75.

Also as part of its reduction plan, the NPS will test the Shackleford Banks horses for Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA), a non-life-threatening red blood cell deficiency that causes irregular heart action and possible lack of vitality. Horses testing positive will not return to the island; nearby residents have proposed adopting them and boarding them away from healthy livestock.

The NPS then plans to conduct research on the use of birth control drugs as a means to controlling the remaining horse population, although it is widely believed that if not allowed to reproduce freely, the breed has little chance of survival. “The Shackleford Banks horses are a part of North Carolina history,” says Jones. “It is up to us to ensure that this living legacy is always available to enrich future generations.”