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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Future of the Barrier Island Horses

Air Date: Week of

Melinda Penkava reports from the outer banks of North Carolina on the fate of the islands' wild horses. Horses roam freely on the barrier islands along the US southeastern coast, but for how long? Development is shrinking their range and the horses' destructive grazing habits may pose a threat to the delicate barrier islands themselves.


CURWOOD: Imagine for a moment that you are out for a walk along one of the great sandy barrier island beaches of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas or Georgia. You take a deep breath of the fresh salty air, and then in the distance you see them, heads down, tails gently snapping - the wild ponies. If you startle them, they're off, down the open sands, where the horses roam freely. But two forces may rein them in. Development is putting a squeeze on their territory, and at the same time, the appetite of the horses is taking a toll on the fragile vegetation of the islands. From Corolla, North Carolina, NPR's Melinda Penkava has our story.

(Sound of horses munching)

PENKAVA: According to local legend, wild horses have been roaming the northernmost section of the Outer Banks for 400 years. By some accounts, descendants of Spanish mustangs, the horses have adapted to the terrain, eating the dune grass. But a big change came a decade ago, when a two-lane highway was extended to Corolla, just south of the Virginia border. This brought a surge of development, and extensive beach homes now blanket the dunes.

(Whine of power drill)

PENKAVA: The development that has attracted thousands of vacationers has also attracted the horses. One herd of two dozen now grazes on the well-fertilized lawns, apparently preferring this to natural vegetation. This sight delights visitors, but it's made some homeowners disgruntled because of the damage the horses do to the ornamental grasses and shrubbery. And even for the horses' advocates, there's increasing cause for concern. Since 1989, a dozen horses have died as a result of car accidents. So to reduce the odds of that, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund formed. Volunteers such as Jane Webster drive for hours each day, monitoring the horses to make sure they're out of harm's way.

WEBSTER: We patrol from April the first through the end of October, the peak of tourist season, try to keep them off the road and keep people from getting too close. Well, I'm going to go ahead and move them now. Come on, girl. Giddap.

PENKAVA: Armed with a training whip and baby rattles, Webster herds the horses into a back yard. But for Rowena Dorman, with the Wild Horse Fund, this is only a temporary solution. Worried that still more horses may die, Dorman no longer thinks they should roam freely.

DORMAN: In the past I would have said definitely, I would have preferred them stay here. But now's the situation where with the growth - it's not gonna stop.

PENKAVA: It's ironic, Dorman says, that the horses are part of the allure for vacationers and homebuyers to come to Corolla. Now the only land that is not slated for development is a thousand-acre protected reserve, where the state of North Carolina runs an estuarine study. This is where Rowena Dorman and the Wild Horse Fund want to fence in the horses.

DORMAN: We've invaded the horses, but the horses have nowhere else to go but that land. If we can't get them on the refuge land, I don't know where we could take them.

PENKAVA: But the state of North Carolina nixes the idea of turning its protected research area into a grazing pasture. John Taggart is head of North Carolina's Estuarine Research Reserve program, and to him, the state is being asked to provide a convenient solution to a problem caused by development.

TAGGART: They allowed development up there in such a manner that the horses have really been sort of pushed out of their range and their habitat, and I think that perhaps the county or the developers up there should have taken this into consideration when they were doing the planning for what is now on the ground.

PENKAVA: The horses may have been there for centuries, says Taggart, but they are not native to the area, and so could upset the ecological balance. Taggart is concerned that if they were fenced in, their foraging would virtually kill off the June grass and spartina marsh grass there. That's a concern shared by Duke University geologist Oren Pilkey.

PILKEY: More than just the spartina, it's a whole assemblage of organisms, virtually dozens and dozens of species that are involved with this intricate ecosystem that makes up a salt marsh. And that system is just about completely wiped out when you eat 'em down to the nub.

PENKAVA: This is already evident further down the string of North Carolina's barrier islands, at Cape Lookout National Seashore, where 200 horses live on the Shackleford Banks.

(Sound of launch engine)

PENKAVA: On approaching the island, it appears as though the horses are drinking at the water's edge. But they're not. The horses are eating, munching on the tender shoots of spartina that would otherwise be waist-high. Here, though, the grass resembles a mowed lawn of toothbrush bristles. Oren Pilkey, a longtime critic of shoreline development by humans, says the horses also eat the dune grass that would normally trap sand and prevent erosion.

PILKEY: The damage is extreme. It depends on how important you consider a salt marsh and things like that, but they are doing, the horses are doing things on Shackleford that if a developer did, the developer would be in prison.

PENKAVA: Problem is, says Pilkey, you just can't come out against the horses.

(Sound of cruise tour guide: "If you look carefully at the surrounding islands during the cruise, you may notice wild horses grazing . . ." fade under)

PENKAVA: The horses are part of the tourist draw here - a tour boat gliding past nearby Kerritt Island repeats the legend that the horses are descendants of shipwrecked Arabian stallions. This prompts a laugh from Mark Hay, a scientists from the University of North Carolina's Institute of Marine Studies, who says the horses were actually abandoned decades ago by farmers. Hay's studies on the effect the horses have on the island found that the grass grew much thicker and three and four feet higher where horses could not graze. Still, Hay says it is sometimes tough to convince people that horses do have an impact.

HAY: If we have something that eats too much grass off this island, and if the grass traps sediment, and if the sediment is pushed during storms, and if the grass isn't there during the storm, if the island doesn't grow up with changing sea levels, then a couple hundred years from now it's gonna be underwater. It's a long-term sort of process to educate people about that and to make all of us think of the importance of events that happen over a scale of decades or centuries versus do we or do we not feed this large-eyed thing that's smiling at us today?

PENKAVA: On the other hand, Hay sees some benefit from the horses. People who come out to visit this estuarine reserve to see the animals may leave with a new appreciation for the fragility of barrier islands. So for Hay, a small herd is okay, so long as their impact on the ecosystem is not ignored.

HAY: I don't think there's anything wrong with making a decision that way. I think there's something wrong with making a decision in ignorance and saying well, horses have been there for 40 years and the island is still there so everything's okay. That's not true.

PENKAVA: Studies are underway at Shackleford and some other islands run by the National Park Service to gauge the horses' impact. Thinning the herds is one option; contraceptives another. In Corolla, North Carolina, meanwhile, there is agreement that the horses there need to be fenced in, but the question remains - just where? For Living on Earth, I'm Melinda Penkava, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.



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