Horses Gone Wild
Published: May 2009
By Jaime Gross
A barrier island off the coast of Georgia grapples with the question of feral horses.
Cumberland Island, just off the coast of Georgia, is famous for its feral horses. Descendants of domesticated livestock released throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these animals now roam the island freely, grazing on marsh and dune grasses that protect the soil from erosion and trampling on environmentally sensitive areas. The National Park Service, which owns and manages 98 percent of the island, is concerned about the horses' destructive impact. However, all management efforts—including birth-control drugs and off-island adoption programs—have so far been blocked by residents and visitors, who argue that the horses are an important part of the island's history. "Well, so is slavery," counters Fred Whitehead, an island naturalist and retired park ranger. "Not all history is good history."
Left to fend for themselves, the horses are struggling. Because they are susceptible to parasites and subtropical diseases, their life span is about half that of their forebears. The large quantities of sand they ingest while grazing blocks their intestines, distending their bellies. To reduce inter-herd competition for food and minimize damage to the island, the Park Service would like to see the population—which now numbers 250— decrease by at least 50 percent. At press time, the NPS was drafting a plan that it hopes will gain the public's support.