The Geography of Luck: Federal Protection Act for North Carolina Wild Horses Clears US House of Representatives as Western Herds Seek a New Plan

Where you were born has a lot to do with your future. That is, if you happen to be a wild horse in the United States.

You could be a mustang foraging for a tuft of grass on a Nevada desert plateau. Or you could be a Corolla wild horse basking on the beach in North Carolina. Either way, the federal government has a plan for you. (photo: DCJohn)

If you think that the United States Congress is in a partisan gridlock that will not allow any legislation to pass, think again.

If you think that the wild horse situation in the United States is in a gridlock equal to that of Congress, check the map first.

An isolated herd of wild horses has been roaming the sands of North Carolina’s Currituck National Wildlife Refuge for about 500 years. The Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act (H.R. 126) passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week and moves on now to the U.S. Senate. The legislation will protect the horses, expand their numbers, and allow expansion of the herd’s gene pool via the introduction of horses from a different coastal herd in North Carolina.

But the legislation pits the concerns of local and private interests against the policies of government agencies. Will the Senate hear the voices or the official policy recommendation?

Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of the legislation–besides the fact that it was unanimously approved by the House Natural Resources Committee–is that it doesn’t ask the federal government for any money.

Maybe that is partly why it passed so easily.

According to the congressional summary, H.R. 126 directs the Secretary of the Interior to enter into an agreement with the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a non-profit organization, regarding the management of free-roaming wild horses within and around the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.? The bill stipulates that the horse population shall be between 110-130 horses and allows for the introduction of a small number of individual horses from Cape Lookout National Seashore in order to maintain the genetic diversity of the Currituck population.? The bill also stipulates that the costs associated with maintaining the herd are to be borne by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.

The bill was introduced on January 3, 2013 by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) ; it took exactly six months to advance the legislation to a vote and send it on to the Senate.

Compare the problems of the North Carolina horses, and their support for a form of home rule from Congress, with the plight of a huge population of running-wild and captive-wild horses in the western United States, where the horses are under the jurisdiction of a Bureau of Land Management management plan that was recently denounced as unsustainable in a 600-page wild horse report by the National Research Council.

What’s the difference between horses in North Carolina and horses in Nevada? After all, both are living on federal land, which means that Congress is ultimately in charge of making decisions about their futures. The difference is that mustangs in western states are on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), where they compete with commercial ranchers who want to use the land for their cattle.

The wild horses in North Carolina, on the other hand, are on land managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The same is true for the famous ponies of Assateague Island, home of Misty of Chincoteague.

If it seems like these two government agencies are operating in separate orbits, consider this: both are agencies within the same cabinet office, the Department of the Interior (DOI).

The BLM is managing the vast population of western horses under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Whether a herd is in Wyoming or New Mexico or California, if it roams on BLM land, it is under BLM management.

And if western wild horses are on non-BLM federal land, what then? Their future can be full of question marks, too. At the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Nevada, FWS policies have governed the wild horses that roam on the protected land. But the land is protected for its wildlife species, and horses are not considered to be one of those species. In fact, horses are perceived as destructive to the native species and the habitat. As a result, the FWS started “gathering” some of the wild horses on the refuge last year, with a goal of a horse-free refuge by 2017.

How different are things in North Carolina?

[VIDEOSINGLE type=”youtube” keyid=”0UR7weE_NCM”, width=”560″, height=”344″]

While the wild horses of the western states are descendants of horses that roamed free from settlements, ranches and cavalry posts, the east coast horses in North Carolina have been shown to be a genetic remnant of Spanish horses from colonial times. They have a rich history equal to the western mustangs and they bring in crowds of tourists who want to photograph them in the surf.

But the FWS doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the county government and private citizens who see the horses as an asset to tourism. According to the government website, the FWS official policy regarding Curritack National Wildlife Refuge “considers the horses to be non-native, feral animals and not a natural component of the barrier island ecosystem. These animals compete with native wildlife species for food and fresh water. Their activities degrade and destroy habitat which negatively impacts native species. The Service actively manages critical habitat areas by erecting fences to keep the nuisance animals out and to prevent habitat damage.”

This FWS policy is similar to the policy in Nevada that mandates the FWS as protective of the native species. In government policy on both ends of the country, wild horses are nuisances. The FWS recommendation for a herd size on the Outer Banks was set at 60. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund thinks the land can sustain over 100 and they went to Congress to get the approval to increase the herd.

Will the legislation make it through the Senate and go on to the White House for President Obama’s signature? That is the big question.

The Corolla approach would be a foot in the door for groups other than government agencies to have hands-on jurisdiction over wild horses. Can the Senate be expected to vote for a policy that is not recommended by an agency of the government? How strongly will the FWS oppose the legislation at the Senate level? Will the bill even make it out of committee to the Senate floor?

Representative Jones is optimistic.”The Corolla wild horses are a beautiful piece of Eastern North Carolina heritage that must be protected,” he said on his website.? “Not only does this legislation preserve the history and culture of the Outer Banks, it also protects the local economy that thrives on the tourism money generated by the horses.

“This is the second time in the last two years that my Republican and Democratic colleagues have come together in a bipartisan fashion and passed this bill through the House.? Unfortunately, the Senate took no action on the bill last year.? If both of our North Carolina senators get behind this effort, I am certain that we can get this through the Democrat-controlled Senate and passed into law.”

While the North Carolina wild horse population is tiny compared to the western population, this is a chance for a new form of management, and a chance for the voice of citizens and wild horse advocates to be heard. In fact, it sets a precedent for citizens to become stakeholders in decision-making for wild horse futures in the United States.

Last week, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) added their support to both the Corolla legislation and the NRC call for a new BLM plan.

Success in the Senate for the Corolla legislation could be a catalyst for change, coast to coast.

Read the Corolla Wild Horse Fund’s evaluation of the Congressional legislation to increase the herd.

Read the text of HR 126, the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act.




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