Tourists, Wild Horses Clash on Atlantic Barrier Islands : North Carolina: The task of segregating animals and vacationers on the Outer Banks has proved insurmountable. Only 23 of the 'bankers' remain alive and face extinction.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Until the mid-1980s, Corolla was an isolated hamlet of a few dozen families, with a deteriorating lighthouse and a small herd of wild horses.

But then a paved road reached this northernmost community on North Carolina's Outer Banks, a slender string of barrier islands stretching 175 miles from Virginia to Cape Lookout.

The state highway--Route 12--brought thousands of tourists, a spectacular real estate boom and increasingly opulent summer cottages.

It also threatened extinction of the free-roaming "banker horses." With the birth of a colt this spring, they number only 23, a tiny remnant of the hundreds that once populated the area.

In the past five years, 14 animals in the Corolla herd have been killed by automobiles. Last summer, a 2-year-old colt, lured to the deck of a beach house by vacationers offering food, was seriously injured when it lost its footing and tumbled down the stairs.

The task of segregating horses and vacationers--the latter totaling as many as 40,000 a week during the summer--has proved to be insurmountable. The animals are wild in name only. They graze lawns and tramp through flower beds.

Camera-toting visitors pursue them relentlessly and, at risk of being nipped or kicked, offer them apples, pizza and saltwater taffy.

Fascination with the animals springs in part from the lore surrounding their origin.

The enduring but disputed account is that the mustangs' ancestors arrived on the Outer Banks with Spanish explorers early in the 16th Century. When colonization failed and the Spaniards moved on, the horses are said to have been left behind.

Dale Burrus, a Cape Hatteras, N.C., businessman and an inspector for the Spanish Mustang Registry, says the Corolla horses and another herd on Ocracoke Island, N.C., have at least one important feature--one fewer vertebra than most breeds--that supports the story.

But skeptics insist that most horses on the islands are descended from stock raised by farmers from Colonial times to the early 20th Century.

"There is no way to disprove the stories of Spanish origin," said Bruce Rodgers, a National Park Service resource management specialist. "But the only accounts that can really be documented are the stories that farmers took horses to the islands from the mainland."

Corolla isn't the only place on the increasingly crowded Atlantic islands where feral horses and ponies are in perplexing conflict with humanity and a fragile environment.

At three national seashores on the Atlantic--Assateague in Maryland, Cape Lookout in North Carolina and Cumberland Island in Georgia--their foraging damages dunes and marshes. It threatens the habitat of such rare creatures as the loggerhead turtle, the piping plover, the wood stork and the Delmarva Peninsula fox.

At Assateague, located on a skinny, 37-mile-long island of the same name off Maryland and Virginia, a herd of ponies that numbered fewer than 20 during the 1960s is expected to total 180 with the arrival of this year's foals. They're smaller than the Carolina horses and multicolored, not solid like the Outer Banks animals.

Although the Assateague ponies' impact on the dunes is more obvious, their threat to the delicately balanced plant and animal communities in the surrounding marshes is more serious, said Carl Zimmerman, the seashore's manager.

The damage has aroused sharp concern among conservationists. But even though the ponies aren't indigenous to the islands, Congress has determined that they belong on the national seashores. Why? Because they're popular with visitors.

So, when the Assateague seashore was established 30 years ago, lawmakers designated the ponies a "desirable feral species" and charged the Park Service with protecting them. At the time, researchers concluded that 120 to 150 animals were acceptable.

But, said Zimmerman, "We now think that 150 may be too many. We are seeing unacceptable damage at the present level."

Accordingly, after six years of testing, the Park Service has launched a birth-control program that uses an injection to reduce the Assateague herd to 150 or fewer.

Biologists will conduct more tests before considering a full-fledged control effort at Cape Lookout and Cumberland Island.

Herds of about 100 horses each roam both areas, causing the same kind of damage as at Assateague. But because "the horses have a very big constituency," any steps to control them will be taken with care, Rodgers said.

In some areas, fences have been erected to prevent damage and control population growth.

Ocracoke Island's 40 horses are kept in a paddock. A fence separates the herd of 150 ponies at Virginia's Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on southern Assateague Island from the herd on the national seashore. The refuge was made famous by Misty, the fictional pony in a popular children's book.

The volunteer fire department in the mainland town of Chincoteague owns the Virginia herd, whose size is controlled by a colorful annual auction that attracts thousands of tourists and hundreds of bidders.

In Corolla, this probably will be the last summer the "banker horses" mingle with tourists.

Plans are to move them north of town onto 15,000 acres of state and federal lands. A fence reaching from Currituck Sound to the Atlantic across a narrow neck of land will prevent their return to Corolla's crowded summer playground.

The horses' exile will mark both victory and defeat for activists of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. They have saved the herd, whose numbers fell to nine several years ago, but they have failed to keep an acceptable distance between the animals and the growing hordes of tourists.

To the disappointment of some fund supporters, state and county officials rejected a proposal to build a paddock.

"We feel that since they have been here for 400 years, they have a right to stay here," said Rowena Dorman, director of the fund's sanctuary program.

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