On a stretch of barrier island without paved roads, some of the last wild horses in the eastern United States are seeing their world get smaller each year.
A boom in vacation homes in the last 25 years in this remote place has seen the descendants of colonial Spanish mustangs confined to a 7,500-acre sanctuary on the northern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks. And now the herd itself may shrink along with its habitat.
A plan backed by the federal government would see the herd reduced from about 115 horses today to no more than 60 in a bid to stop the animals, designated North Carolina's state horse this year, from competing with federally protected birds for increasingly hard-to-come-by resources.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says the plan will reduce harmful behavior by a species it considers a nuisance. But residents who rely on the horses to bring in tourist dollars or who simply cherish the mustangs as a symbol of the country's spirit worry it could bring about the collapse of the herd through hereditary diseases and other complications of a shallow gene pool.
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"The American wild horse is disappearing from our country," said Karen McCalpin, executive director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit group that manages the herd. "To me, they're as much a symbol of freedom as the bald eagle."
Wild mustangs, which are found in their greatest numbers in Western states, at one time could also be found in large herds throughout the southeast. Today, they're confined to a few isolated spots in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
Thousands of mustangs once roamed the Outer Banks, descendants of horses brought during an ill-fated Spanish colonial mission in the 1520s. But N.C. 12 has been steadily moving north through the barrier islands, reaching Corolla in the 1980s and bringing rapid development with it.
Huge, brightly painted vacation homes now line the road, and even pop up behind the dunes on Corolla's beach, accessible only by vehicles with four-wheel drive. Once the paved road ends, there's no development except vacation homes.
On its website, the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge describes the animals as something of a pest: "The Fish and Wildlife Service considers the horses to be nonnative, feral animals and not a natural component of the barrier island ecosystem," it reads. "These animals compete with native wildlife species for food and fresh water."
The management plan calls for the size of the herd to be kept at 60, meaning horses in excess of that number would have to be captured and put up for adoption to new homes off the island, while remaining mares would be treated with contraceptive medication to stop them from becoming pregnant.