ST. MARYS — A new National Park Service brochure may change public perception about the horses roaming Cumberland Island National Seashore.
A limited number of the brochures were printed to candidly answer questions rangers are asked all the time about the horses, said Jill Hamilton-Anderson, a national seashore spokes- woman.
“We get these questions all the time,” she said.
Some of the information in the brochure, “Horses of Cumberland Island,” contradicts the romanticized images in tourism publications of happy, healthy horses frolicking on the barrier island’s beach.
The island is home to the only horse herd on the Atlantic Coast that is not managed, meaning no food, water, veterinarian care or population control is provided.
The overall health of the estimated 150 to 190 feral horses on the island is not good. Their lifespan is 10 years or less because of parasites, drought-related stress, age, natural accidents and disease.
The horses are non- native and compete with native species for habitat and food. They are capable of taking over ecosystems that plants and animals need to survive, according to the brochure.
Horses consume anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 tons of vegetation each year, removing as much as 98 percent in areas they frequent and leaving little behind for native species. Those areas include environmentally sensitive saltwater marshes and sand dunes.
“This impact can cause damage to island resources by destabilizing dunes and stream banks, selective removing of native grasses and forbs, and threatening the biodiversity of native plants and wildlife,” the brochure said.
The earliest historic account of horses on the island was in 1742 when the English and Spanish battled over Fort St. Andrews on the north end of the island. The Spanish also brought horses to the island in the late 1500s, but there is no evidence those horses survived.
The brochure also urges visitors to exercise caution around the horses. Visitors are encouraged not to approach a horse, come within 50 feet of the animals, and give them the right of way.
“Cumberland visitors have been injured by horses in the past, usually in the form of kicks, bites and being knocked down,” it said.
People are encouraged to never feed or pet the horses for the safety of everyone.
“If a horse begins to associate people with food, it can lead to a horse becoming dependent on support,” the brochure said. “This can be bad for both visitors and the horses.”
Alex Kearns, chair of St. Marys EarthKeepers, praised the park service for publishing the brochure in a post on the organization’s Facebook page. She believes selective contraception is the best way to manage the herd.
“While I do appreciate the tourism/economic aspects of the wild horses, I believe that we have a responsibility to do our utmost to ensure that the animals do not suffer and that the population is managed in such a way as to increase the health of the herd and protect the island’s fragile ecosystems,” she said. “Man put them there. Man must care for them.”