KINGSLAND — It’s hard to find an advertisement featuring Cumberland Island National Seashore without photographs of wild horses frolicking on the beach.
It’s also misleading.
The animals pictured in most ads were photoshopped and look nothing like the feral animals actually roaming the barrier island.
Public perception of healthy horses roaming throughout the island is one of the challenges facing National Park Service Superintendent Gary Ingram, who announced plans Monday to possibly remove the more than 160 feral horses from Georgia’s largest barrier island.
“I want to take the feral horses off Cumberland Island,” he said. “The problem is they are animals that don’t need to be there.”
Despite the belief by some that the horses are descendants of those freed by Spanish explorers and have roamed the island for centuries, the truth is they were released by island residents in 1949, according to a University of Georgia study, Ingram said.
Since their release, the horse population has fluctuated, with as many as 300 horses counted during an annual census.
The horses, which have a limited gene pool, are not in good health.
They compete with deer and other native animals for a limited food source on the 17.5-mile long island. They roam throughout the island, including the 9,800-acre wilderness area which encompasses most of the north end of the island.
Some of their food sources include grasses in environmentally sensitive saltwater marshes and the grasses that anchor saltwater dunes.
The National Park Service explored ways to control the horse population in the late 1990s.
It proposed lowering the population through dart gun administered contraception, but federal funding was withdrawn after some island residents complained.
One option that won’t be considered is an adoption program. It was considered in the 1990s, but the park service ruled it out because the animals were unhealthy and wild. In fact, some tourists have been injured when they ventured too close to the horses.
Ingram said his proposal is intended to make the visitor experience more memorable and has nothing against horses. In fact, he was a horse ranger at Yosemite National Park.
“I was a horse patrolman,” he said. “I love horses.”
Regardless of how the park service deals with the issue, there is one option that will never be considered.
“We’re not going to kill horses,” he said.
Ingram also knows it may be an uphill battle to gain enough support to remove the horses. He said as much when speaking at Monday’s Camden Partnership meeting, where he polled the audience. About two-thirds of the audience wanted horses to remain on Cumberland Island.
Ingram said one option would be to keep some of the horses in a fenced-in area.
“I want to get a snapshot on the right thing to do,” he said.
Regardless of what the final decision is, it won’t come anytime soon. Ingram said there will be plenty of public discussion about the issue before a decision is made.
Horses will continue to have a presence on the island, but in a way Ingram believes could attract more tourists.
Ingram said he’d like to bring domesticated horses on the island to work in traditional roles as a form of transportation.
He plans to propose removing the tires, tools and other equipment from a carriage house on the south end of the island, renovating the building and housing horses and carriages there. The public would have the opportunity to rent horses or go on carriage rides.
“That’s a historical use,” Ingram said. “You can’t put domesticated horses with feral horses.”