House agrees: 60 wild horses aren't enough

The U.S. House has unanimously passed a bill that would allow a bigger herd of free-roaming Corolla horses in Currituck County in an effort to create more genetic diversity in the herd.

The Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act sponsored by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones would provide a new management plan that would more than double the maximum number of horses in the Corolla herd, from 60 to 130. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which controls much of the land where the horses live, had wanted the herd to be limited to 60.

But Jones, a Republican from Farmville, cited research done by Gus Cothran, a professor of animal genetics at Texas A&M, which shows that at least 110 horses are necessary to ensure that there is enough genetic variation in each generation of offspring to sustain a healthy herd. Jones said his bill aims to ensure the herd in Currituck County never drops below 110 and is capped at 130 to avoid overpopulation.

The wild horses at Corolla are believed to be descendants of Spanish Mustangs and have roamed North Carolina's coast for more than 400 years. They have endured hurricanes, storms, scorching summers and harsh winters to become the State Horse and the second most popular tourist attraction on the Outer Banks after the beach.

They are "tough little animals," said Jones.

One big family

Karen McCalpin, director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit charity organization that covers the costs of caring for the wild horses, said the animals are closely related and are down to one maternal line, making them more susceptible to disease. The Corolla wild horses are listed on the American Livestock Conservancy's critically endangered list.

The wild horse fund will continue to be responsible for covering all costs associated with the wild horses, meaning the bill wouldn't cost taxpayers any money. McCalpin said the nonprofit raises about $400,000 a year through adoptions, symbolic adoptions, donations, special events and two museum stores.

There are about 140 free-roaming horses in the Corolla area now, many of which are believed to have come from bordering Virginia. To reach the target population of 120 to 130 horses, the wild horse fund controls population growth through adoptions and contraception that is humane and minimally invasive, said McCalpin.

"Some type of intervention is necessary," she said. "This kind of contraception improves the overall health and longevity of the herd because it is unhealthy for young female horses to reproduce very often."

New blood for the herd

Part of the bill's plan is to introduce more genetic diversity into the Corolla herd by bringing in Spanish Mustangs from Shackleford Banks on Cape Lookout National Seashore near Beaufort.

The wild horses in Currituck County roam over an area of 7,544 acres, 60 percent of which is private. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which considers the wild horses non-native and feral and a threat to wildlife habitat, owns the other 3,000 acres.

Jones, who also introduced legislation that made Shackleford Banks a federally protected area in the late 1990s, partnered with the wild horse fund to draft a plan that could ensure the future of the Corolla herd, despite the objections of the wildlife service.

"The essence of passing this legislation is that the federal government will be required to work with this nonprofit and the local community to protect this species," said Joshua Bowlen, Jones's legislative director.

H.R. 306 will now go to the Senate. Jones hopes the Senate takes up the bill this spring.