Federal Horse Play in North Carolina
Washington is blocking a local initiative to save the state’s wild Spanish Mustangs. Why?
One of the great prides of my home state of North Carolina is the Outer Banks. The narrow, 200-mile-long string of barrier islands sits off the North Carolina coast—a harrowing surprise for ships, but a peaceful and absurdly beautiful place for people. Horses run wild on the beaches, kicking up sand and frolicking in the waves.
That’s right, Spanish Mustangs roam freely on the Outer Banks, and sometimes they get so close you could touch them. No one knows for sure how they got there, but it is widely believed that they came from Spanish ships wrecked off the coast 500 years ago. The passengers may not have survived, but some of the horses did. They swam ashore to what is now called North Carolina, where they have lived off the land ever since.
But the Outer Banks are no longer the well-kept secret they once were. In a boost to North Carolina’s economy, people from all over visit the Outer Banks and, unsurprisingly, widespread development has followed. That development has taken its toll. In the past 80 years, the wild mustang population has dropped to fewer than 100 from an estimated 6,000 horses.
For those remaining horses, the future looks bleak. Development has separated the mustangs and they are now isolated in two different areas, one population in the northern part of the Outer Banks and one at the southern tip. Because of that, each population has become severely inbred. Debilitating birth defects are common and getting worse. Many newborns don’t survive and the population is dwindling, further exacerbating the problem.
Fortunately, North Carolina rightly treasures these horses and has come up with a fairly simple solution: move some of the horses to the others, and let nature take its course. That would mix the two populations and diversify the gene pool. There is even a nonprofit organization, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, that has agreed to fund the move so it won’t cost the taxpayers a dime. The plan is supported by the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Seems easy enough, right? Unfortunately, like many simple and logical solutions to routine problems, the federal government is standing in the way. The Interior Department won’t allow the horses to be moved and is instead actively working to further reduce the horse population to only 60. The feds fear that the horses will creep further into the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, intrude on “sensitive areas,” and interfere with the birds and other animals there—other animals, the government says, that are more important because the wild horses are “not native.”
Not native? They have been there for half a millennium—far longer than the U.S. government and most North Carolinians’ ancestors. And certainly longer than the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, which opened 30 years ago. The “sensitive areas” of the refuge are protected from intrusion by fencing anyway.
It is cruel for the federal government to stand in the way of such a common-sense solution and exacerbate the inbreeding problem leading to debilitating birth defects in newborn mustangs. Surely the government’s concerns can be allayed.
Rep. Walter Jones (R., N.C.) has introduced the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act, to force the federal government to allow the horses to be moved—at no expense to Uncle Sam. Moving the horses and maintaining a free-roaming population of 120-130 would be funded by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund; it only asks the federal government to step aside.
The bill passed the House in 2012 and 2013, but opposition from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaves it stalled in the Senate. Mr. Jones has again introduced legislation in this new Congress. Let’s hope the Republican majority in the Senate moves quickly. Every day Congress waits, the problem gets worse.
These horses are a national treasure. The U.S. government should be doing everything it can to protect them, not only because we North Carolinians treasure them, but because they were here first.
Mr. Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor, is an attorney in Charlotte, N.C.