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Conserving the Wondrous Wild Horses of the Outer Banks

Rising sea levels, beach erosion, and high tide flooding due to global warming are an increasing risk to the major tourist destination of the Outer Banks, a line of islands in North Carolina. 

The sea level in the Outer Banks has risen about three inches since the early 1980s, according to NASA. Some areas of the islands have eroded over 200 feet in the last two decades and are losing about 13 feet a year according to estimates by the National Park Service.

The unprecedented warming summers have begun to affect a population of wild Spanish mustangs native to the Outer Banks region. According to The Charlotte Observer, the horses take to the beaches during warmer weather to avoid being bitten by bugs. On their way to the shore, the horses can get rerouted or even hit by oncoming drivers. 

While the adaptability of these wild horses has allowed them to live in the Outer Banks for nearly five centuries, an increasing number of roads and beach houses has left them with less and less habitat. 

According to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, today’s herd has to share 7,544 acres with 700 houses, thousands of people, pets, and vehicles. Paired with the beach erosion caused by rising waters, many stories of confused mustangs have been reported; like Alma, the 2-year-old wild horse. 

Corolla, North Carolina. Image: Ethan Howard

In June, Alma was often seen wandering alone or trying to make friends with humans. This seemed strange to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which manages a herd of 100 mustangs. When they found Alma, she had wounds on both sides of her face.

Meg Puckett, the fund’s herd manager, said that a stallion most likely to be Alma’s father became aggressive toward her and pushed her out of the harem she was born into. 

“Alma is often alone on the beach and to human observers seems lost, which is understandably concerning,” Puckett wrote on Facebook. “It may be difficult to see, but we have to remember that these are wild horses behaving naturally. It’s what eventually happens to each and every young horse, though Alma’s situation is a little unique.” 

Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image: Liz Fitch

Because Alma lived in an area with a low horse population, it was difficult for the young horse to assimilate into other nearby harems. The lonely foal made her way north where larger horse populations were. While the Wild Horse Fund hoped she would find her new home, she became used to humans and began following people instead. 

To preserve the wild horse population, herd caretakers asked visitors to shoo Alma away and not interact with her. 

“She is in a very vulnerable position right now, where she is young, impressionable, and unfortunately alone. We want her to be seeking out the company of other horses, not people,” Pucket wrote.

As the summer continued, Alma was still seemingly lost. However, by mid-July, the little foal finally joined her new home and was welcomed by her grandmother, Shala, according to the horse fund. 

Spearheaded by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, agencies and individuals work together to protect the wild herd through the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act. Other herds along the Outer Banks are protected by similar acts. 

Through their resilience, these historic herds are important to the Outer Banks and the local tourist business. Grassroots organizations are hoping to continue this legacy, as they’ve been designated a critically endangered horse by international equine agencies.

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