Coming Together to Protect and Preserve
THERE are only two animals the United States
Congress has ever specifically passed laws to
protect. The first was the bald eagle. The sec-ond
was the wild horse.
In 1971, more letters poured into Congress
over the threat to the nation’s wild horses than
any other issue in U.S. history except for the
Vietnam War. So Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-
Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
The act declares that “wild horses are living symbols of the
historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to
the diversity of the life forms within the Nation and enrich the
lives of the American people; and that these horses are fast dis-appearing
from the American scene.”
Even so, America’s wild horse population has dwindled from
2 million in the 1800s to less than 25,000 today, advocacy
group Return to Freedom says.
A retired librarian’s tireless efforts changed legislation to pro-tect
the Shackleford horses. Carolyn Mason, who grew up visit-ing
the island, got involved when the Park Service declared that
the horses had multiplied to over 200 and were overgrazing the
island and had to be reduced to a herd of 30.
Equine geneticist Gus Cothran of the University of
Kentucky warned the Park Service that their number was too
small to sustain a genetically viable population. Mason and a
group of concerned people from Carteret County stepped up
and formed the Shackleford Banks Foundation to advocate for
In the meantime, disease testing on the horses found that
they were carriers of an equine infectious anemia. State law
requires that any horse carrying the disease must be quaran-tined
for life or destroyed. No quarantine facilities were avail-able
for the infected horses, and 76 were euthanized.
Determined to protect the future of the herd, Mason got the
attention of Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., who introduced legisla-tion
in the U.S. House to protect the horses in 1997. Jesse
Helms pushed it through the Senate. When a third North
Carolinian, White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, con-vinced
President Bill Clinton to sign it, the Shackleford Banks
Protection Act became law.
The horses from then on would be co-managed by the Park
Service and the Foundation.
“It’s a 20-year relationship that has grown and thrived to the
benefit of the wild horses,” Poindexter says. “There’s always
more to accomplish. Nature doesn’t sit still, so we need to con-tinue
to be vigilant in our educational efforts, in monitoring
the health and genetic diversity of the herd, and continuing to
adaptively manage the horses.”
Dr. Sue Stuska joined the National Park Service as an equine
biologist in 1996, and has spent the last 20-plus years studying
and monitoring the horses.
“We have 119 horses on Shackleford now,” she says. “We are
unusual in that we have a legislated population range of 120-
130. We make decisions based on horse relatedness within the
herd and use birth control as needed. For example, females in
less well-represented lines don’t get birth control or only get
enough to give them a break between foals. Birth control is
delivered by a dart, so the mares are not sedated or handled for
it. What we don’t do are roundups, vaccinations, feed, water,
medicate or even get close to the horses.”