William Kirby-Smith, Ph.D., is of two minds about the wild horses on Carrot Island. The associate professor of marine ecology at the Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, located directly across Taylors Creek from the island, puts it this way: "My personal view as a disinterested biologist is that feral horses do not belong on small shoals. They're not native... If not controlled, they do damage..."
On the other hand, he acknowledges the same thing is true of humans. "If I was going to say get the horses off the islands, I'd also say get us out of the coast." He says this with a good-humored laugh and admits that if he were a member of Beaufort's Chamber of Commerce, he'd be outraged at the idea of removing the horses.
Several weeks ago, my husband and I were among the visitors charmed by the herd that now numbers about 42 individuals, said Rebecca Ellin, program manager for the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve.
I became enormously curious about the history and management of the horses after spending parts of three days on Carrot Island admiring and photographing them.
There's a legend that the wild horses on barrier islands along the East Coast escaped from Spanish galleons centuries ago, but Kirby-Smith explained that the horses on Carrot Island had a more recent and less romantic origin.
A doctor kept several horses on Carrot Island during the 1940s. He took care of the horses while he lived, but after he died, they survived and procreated without human assistance.
In her book, "Hoofprints in the Sand, Wild Horses of the Atlantic Coast," Bonnie S. Urquhart says that in July 1976, about 40 acres of Carrot island were almost auctioned for development, but Beaufort residents who didn't want to see houses across the creek where they were used to seeing the wild beauty of island and its horses intervened.
The Nature Conservancy, with the help of funds raised by local residents, paid $250,000 for Carrot Island and Bird Shoal. These areas comprise part of the 2,025-acre Rachel Carson component of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, managed by the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, was established in April 1984. The reserve, named for the late Rachel Carson who did research in the area, also includes Town Marsh, Horse Island, Sand Dollar Island and Middle Marsh.
The state's policy is to remove invasive species and feral animals from the coastal areas under its management. But when Beaufort residents learned that was the intention, they were "up in arms" Kirby-Smith said.
A huge management problem
Thus, he said, the state ended up with a huge horse management problem. The horses, with no predators or other control on fertility, had proliferated to the point that they were starving and destroying the vegetation on the island.
There were 68 horses on Carrot Island in 1986, according to Urquhart. Famine and parasites killed a number of them during the winter of 1986-87. In 1988, the state removed more than half of those that remained. The healthy ones were adopted by private individuals.
The state now employs a dart-gun birth-control program to keep the population in check. The program is coordinated with the Humane Society of the United States and Zoo Montana. It involves using darts to inject the mares with birth-control medication once a year.
At this point, all the mares are injected. Even so, one or two foals are born every couple of years, said Ellin, the Estuarine Reserve program manager.
The state is trying to establish the appropriate size for the herd, and once that's done will put procedures in place to maintain that number.
If it's possible to judge by looking at them, the horses on Carrot Island today are a healthy, frisky herd.
The controversy over their presence is understandable. They do change the ecology of the island, Kirby-Smith said.
A study published in The Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology found that "horse-grazed marshes had less vegetation, a higher diversity of foraging birds, higher densities of crabs, and a lower density and species richness of fishes than marshes not grazed by horses."
But, for that matter, Carrot Island itself is not "natural." It appears on maps as early as 1777, according to Urquhart, but in the 1920s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged Taylors Creek, they deposited the sand on Carrot Island, building it higher and increasing its stability.
The state appears to have found a reasonable compromise that allows the horses to remain wild, but keeps their numbers low enough to protect other island resources from excessive damage.
This is one North Carolinian who's grateful for their efforts, and those of the Beaufort residents who fought to protect the island and the horses.
Joy Franklin is the editorial page editor of the AC-T. She can be reached at (828) 232-5895 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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