WASHINGTON — For the second year in a row, a bill to protect wild horses on North Carolina’s coast has gone to the U.S. Senate after passing unanimously in the House.
Supporters hope for different results this go-around, after the bill died in a Senate committee last year. The House passed this year’s attempt on Monday.
Introduced by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act would create a new management plan for the herd of Spanish Mustangs that inhabit the northern Outer Banks. It would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of North Carolina, Currituck County and the Corolla Wild Horse Fund to work together on the changes.
The new bill would allow the herd to grow to a size that improves genetic viability, which equine scientists have found to be 110 to 130 horses. The Corolla horses have resided on the North Carolina coast since the 16th century and are one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions.
“The Corolla wild horses are a beautiful piece of Eastern North Carolina heritage that must be protected,” Jones said in a statement. “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.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service testified against last year’s bill, describing the horses as feral and a threat to native species. The horses roam through the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the service .
Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie said he believes this year’s bill is little changed from last year.
“While our opposition to the bill continues, we are pleased about ongoing conversations with the bill’s sponsor. No details as yet, though,” MacKenzie wrote in an email.
Jones, a Republican from Farmville, said he thinks the bill can get through the Senate this time around with support from North Carolina’s senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, who co-sponsored the bill last year.
In a statement, Hagan echoed Jones’ view of the Corolla horses as an important part of North Carolina’s heritage.
“My goal is to preserve the genetic viability of the herd so future generations can enjoy these beautiful horses,” Hagan said. “I will continue working with my colleagues and stakeholders in North Carolina to find a solution that protects the horses.”
Burr could not be reached for comment. When he signed on to co-sponsor the Senate version of the bill last summer, Burr said it would give local organizations and authorities the tools they need to manage the horses “without excessive federal involvement.”
The Spanish Mustang is currently on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s critically endangered list. Although the Corolla herd consists of 119 horses, there is only one maternal line, said Karen McCaplin, director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit that manages and cares for the herd.
The bill could determine the future of the Corolla horses, McCaplin said.
“This is their last hope,” she said. “Every year we delay, we are closer to a genetic collapse.”
The bill would allow for the introduction of a few horses from Shackleford Banks, located on Cape Lookout National Seashore, to the Corolla herd. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund would continue to fund the horses’ care and management, as well as operate a contraception program to mix the two gene pools.