Park Service Attempts to Rein In Horses


Oh, to be a horse on this little hunk of paradise.

Plenty of room to roam. No nasty predators to get stressed-out over. And a seemingly endless, emerald coat of velvety grass to graze, courtesy of El Nino.

No doubt about it, the 15 rather plump-looking horses that call this island home have it pretty darn good. But if the National Park Service has its way in a simmering legal dispute with an equine organization, the animals' cushy lifestyle could come to an end this week--and they could find themselves slumming with the hoi polloi on the mainland.

As part of its plan to restore the Channel Islands to their native condition, the Park Service is looking to move the horses off 24-mile-long Santa Cruz Island, along with the thousands of feral pigs and sheep it blames for overgrazing vegetation and denuding the island's east end over the years.

The Santa Barbara-based Foundation for Horses and Other Animals, which contends that the so-called heritage herd consists of descendants of the ranch animals brought to California by Spanish settlers in the 1800s, considers the deportation plan outrageous.

It has sued the Park Service and John Gherini, the former part-owner of the island, to keep the herd where it is, arguing that the animals are not resistant to mainland diseases and may be of scientific importance in addition to their historical value.

"It would be really heartbreaking if they had to leave," said foundation co-founder Beverly McCurdy. "Sometimes, I don't even sleep at night because I think of the horses."

Tim Setnicka, superintendent of Channel Islands National Park, scoffs at the notion that the animals he calls "mongrels" have any special value. He says the horses need to be removed, as Gherini has advocated, to complete the restoration plans and provide the visiting public with a more natural, authentic island environment. Besides, one of them recently kicked and fractured a visitor's leg, he said.

"They went from horses belonging to the Gherinis standing around in the pasture . . . to now, all of a sudden, it is the 'heritage herd,' " Setnicka said.

"They are largely inbred quarter horses--it is two stallions breeding with their daughters."

Gherini and the Park Service prevailed in U.S. District Court last year, winning a summary judgment. But the foundation continued its fight, appealing the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and obtaining a stay of the ruling. Gherini and the Park Service have until today to file arguments to have the stay lifted, which could be done within days.

Earlier this month, foundation members received a tip that Park Service workers were corralling the horses near shore in direct violation of the court order. The organization, which has spent more than $80,000 on the legal battle, quickly rented a helicopter to fly over the corral, verifying the report.

The animals were released within two days; a letter from the government's attorney characterized the episode as a "mix-up."

Veterinarian Karen Blumenshine, who brought the horses to the attention of equestrian groups, does not think so.

Blumenshine recently made a lobbying visit to Washington and persuaded five members of the House Natural Resources Committee to write a letter to the director of the Park Service advocating preservation of the herd.

Based on information from an Ohio State University birth control expert and other scientists, Blumenshine contends that the number of horses on the island could be controlled while preserving enough for a breeding pool.

On Friday, Blumenshine and a group of supporters traveled by boat from Ventura Harbor to Santa Cruz Island, spotting the herd as it grazed on a hillside by a rusting, abandoned oil well.

The herd--made up of two groups that often blend--has been on its own since 1984, the year before island ranching stopped. Previously, the horses often ran free but were occasionally used to round up sheep.

Now foundation members have named all the herd's members.

Rubio, a cream-colored yearling, approached the humans, full of curiosity. Buck Bay, a stallion and the leader of one of the sub-herds, watched from the hill above.

Most of the animals seemed uninterested in the visitors, however, and continued chomping on the fertile pasture.

While watching Buck Bay briefly square off against El Dorado, the other leading stallion, Blumenshine collected urine and hair samples from the ground nearby. The urine samples could determine if any mares were pregnant; the hair samples could confirm Rubio's parentage.

Foundation members say they have contacted experts who believe there may be genetic links between the horses and Spanish colonial horses, preserving the heritage of California.

And, they say, why remove horses from Santa Cruz Island?

"If there is a perfect place in the world, it is here," Blumenshine said as the breeze swayed the grass in the pasture before her. "They have everything they could ever want."

Times staff writer Hilary MacGregor contributed to this story.

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