The Corolla Wild Horses are one of the biggest tourist attractions of the Currituck Outer Banks. As many as 3,000 people a day take guided tours up to the four wheel drive area of Corolla in hopes of seeing them. While many others use their own or rented vehicles to try and catch a glimpse or snap a photo.
Unfortunately the days of seeing these animals in the wild may be numbered though. The lack of genetic diversity, dwindling numbers, and involvement with man have put the Corolla Herd in greater danger than they have ever faced.
Collectively part of the Banker Strain of Colonial Mustangs which includes the herd on the Shackleford Banks, the Corolla Horses are listed as a critically endangered species. Only around 100 horses live on the 7,500 acres of sand on the Currituck Outer Banks today. Whereas about 125 horses live down on the Shackleford Banks off Morehead City. These are the only two herds of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs left on the planet.
Genetically speaking however, the Corolla horses are all part of the same family as they have only one maternal line. This means they all descend from the same mother. As a result there are a lot of birth defects due to inbreeding among the herd.
When a foal is born with birth defects, it usually means removal of the baby and the mother from the beach. With a decreasing gene pool, this will be a reoccurring problem that will eventually cause the herd to collapse upon itself. Especially considering that when a horse is removed from the beach it is not allowed to return.
So what can be done to insure the survival of these animals that bring in millions of dollars in tourism every year?
New Horse Introduced
Last November, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund (the non-profit organization that manages the Corolla horses) brought a horse from the Shackleford Banks to Corolla. The four year old stallion named Gus was brought in to introduce some new blood, literally, into the herd.
After genetic tests were performed by Dr. Gus Cothran of Texas A&M University, Gus (yes he was named after Dr. Cothran) was found to be of a different maternal line than the Corolla horses while still being a purebred Colonial Spanish Mustang. When he finally produces offspring, those foals will be completely different than any other horse in Corolla, effectively beginning a new family tree.
So why don’t they just bring more horses to Corolla from the Shackleford Banks? It seems like the obvious solution right? Well, that’s where politics gets involved.
The horses of the Shackleford Banks have federal protection as part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. But the Corolla herd does not have any protection other than a Currituck County Ordinance. That ordinance prohibits touching, feeding, and approaching any of the horses inside a 50 foot barrier.
However, it does not address the genetic problem currently facing the herd. A bill was introduced and passed the House of Representatives to grant federal protection to the Corolla horses in 2013. But it has not passed or been voted on yet in the Senate.
The legislation would allow for the swapping of horses between the Corolla and Shackleford herds at little to no cost to the federal government. Costs would still be covered by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, as they are today.
Another key component of the legislation is that it sets minimums and limits on the size of the Corolla Herd. The current Currituck Wild Horse Management Plan lists a minimum of 60 horses. Equine experts like Dr. Cothran believe there is not enough genetic diversity to sustain the herd at that level.
The legislation would set a new minimum of 110 and a cap of 130 horses in Corolla. But how can you limit the number of babies born each year with wild animals?
The answer is contraception. Currently the Corolla Wild Horse Fund administers medication to make mares temporarily sterile. The goal is to limit the breeding population to the healthiest of females in age or physical wellbeing.
The medication is also completely reversible and poses no harm to the horse. By voluntarily administering this program, the CWHF hopes to demonstrate to government officials that it can effectively limit the size of the herd even with greater numbers.
New Babies in 2015
Just this year, five babies were born in Corolla. This is a drastic reduction in births compared to 2007 when 24 foals were born. Born in the months of May and June this year, four of the five babies (pictured here) were born healthy.
Unfortunately, one of the babies was born with birth defects and had to be removed from the beach. Thankfully after extensive medical treatment the colt was rehabilitated and is now awaiting adoption at the CWHF Rehabilitation Facility.
With current measures in place and the potential for new assistance, there is hope that the Corolla Wild Horses will continue to thrive on the Currituck Outer Banks.